The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Faces of the Flood

July 18, 2007

Faces of the Flood: Letter from governor bolstered mayor during recovery

Latest in a series on the 1977 Johnstown Flood

As mayor of a flood-ravaged city, Herb Pfuhl had a lot to think about in July 1977.

But a single sheet of paper eased his mind.

Pfuhl later framed the handwritten letter from then-Gov. Milton Shapp, a document that allowed city leaders to cut through red tape and get Johnstown on the road to recovery.

“That saved us a lot of frustration,” Pfuhl said.

Shapp visited the city soon after the flood. Without any prodding from Pfuhl, the governor scrawled his letter on a piece of paper resting on the hood of an Army truck:

“This letter authorizes you under the president’s declaration of emergency issued earlier today to contract for removal of debris, fallen trees and other materials that are littering the streets and plugging up sewers in Johnstown; to purchase food and medical supplies that may be needed by the citizens of your city, and for fuel for civil defense or for community restoration purposes. Although it will not be necessary to require bids because of the extreme emergency that exists, you are of course expected to use prudent judgment in the placing of these contracts and to keep all records of these transactions.”

That meant Pfuhl could bypass the long process of soliciting bids for cleanup. And that was important in a city crippled by water, mud and mountains of debris.

Busy with flood work, Pfuhl said he simply tucked the letter, dated July 21, into his jacket pocket.

“Never even gave it a thought. I said, ‘OK, that’s fine,’ ” he recalled. “You’re thinking about 3 million other things rather than that letter.”

About a week later, however, federal disaster-recovery officials had moved into the area. One official questioned Pfuhl’s management practices.

And the feds had clout when it came to that topic, since U.S. government funding would play a critical role in cleaning up and rebuilding Johnstown.

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Faces of the Flood

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