On the morning of February 26, 1972, the failure of three coal slurry dams let loose a tidal wave of destruction upon the Buffalo Creek hollow in Logan county, West Virginia. With little warning to residents, more than 130 million gallons of dark floodwaters tore through more than a dozen communities in the hollow. By the day’s end, hundreds of homes and vehicles were destroyed, thousands were left homeless, and 125 men, women, and children were dead. The flood, known as the Buffalo Creek disaster, is considered one of the worst disasters in both American and Mountain State history.
“The only warning we had was just a neighbor woman had spotted it and just pulled in front of our house and hollered, ‘Run, the dam has broke!’” remembered survivor Shirley Marcum. “And then you could hear the roar of it and… you could see it. I saw my neighbors’ houses leave. I watched them crumble. I seen trees, logs, cars, slate, slush, you name it and it was in that.”
Mannix Porterfield, a reporter who covered the events of that tragic day, later recalled the destruction left in the flood’s wake. In a 2012 interview, Porterfield said:
[I]t looked like a battlefield. As if some foreign enemy had flown in and nuked the place. Debris was everywhere. Bridges were smashed to bits. Homes were left in splinters… Railroad tracks… yanked up and twisted. They looked like huge metallic pretzels.
Porterfield described a makeshift morgue set up at the local junior high school, likening it to the famous scene from Gone with the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara stands astonished looking upon a sea of battlefield casualties.
“One thing that really impressed me, though, was there was no immediate display of emotion,” Porterfield said, remembering the survivors. “They just had this blank stare of resignation… One of my co-workers said people in those coal communities are used to being battered by this and that. They are used to hard times. And this was just another little installment in the progression of a hard life, I guess.”
Congressman Ken Hechler put it a little more bluntly. In reaction to the flood, Hechler said: “The people are prisoners of the coal industry.”
Hechler’s quote is included in the media theorist Rita Colistra’s article in the Journal of Appalachian Studies, which also includes a quote from Ralph Nader. Nader commented, shortly after the flood, that the “Buffalo Creek massacre is only one more in the long series of tragedies which coal corporations have perpetrated upon the people of Appalachia, especially of West Virginia.” Note that Nader did not mince words, labelling the event a “massacre.”
A close look at Buffalo Creek illuminates the region’s ties to coal. Scholarship on the disaster also helps us get to know the people—the victims, the survivors—involved. So often, these people are defined by misguided Appalachian stereotypes.
It wasn’t long after the flood that lawsuits were brought against Pittston Coal, the company responsible for the slurry dams. One lawsuit was filed by the state of West Virginia, while another class action lawsuit was filed by survivors of the flood. The sociologist Kai Erikson was brought in for the latter suit as an expert witness on behalf of the survivors. He relied on depositions and additional interviews he conducted to write Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. For many, Erikson’s book became a definitive take on Buffalo Creek, as well as Appalachian culture as a whole.
Erikson’s book was a finalist for the National Book Award the year of its release. It “should be widely read,” states a 1978 review in the Journal of American Studies:
In all its aspects—the survivors’ description of the flood and its consequences, the contribution which it makes to an understanding of Appalachian life and to the study of disasters, and its theoretical suggestiveness—it is outstanding.
Still highly regarded today, a 2011 paper in the Asian Journal of Social Science refers to Erikson’s book as “a classic piece on the sociological study of post-disaster societies.”
Some, however, have taken issue with Erikson’s work and, on a larger scale, with outsiders’ views of Appalachia. Erikson, a Yale professor when he arrived in Buffalo Creek, is one such outsider, having no connection to the region until he was brought in as an expert witness. In “Buffalo Creek Revisited: Deconstructing Kai Erikson’s Stereotypes,” the sociologists Lynda Ann Ewen and Julia A. Lewis write: “Erikson’s conclusions about the people of Appalachia have… along with studies of snake handlers, come to define what students who study sociology know about… all of Appalachia.” They assert that Erikson validates “the national perceptions of Appalachians as peculiar, isolated, and backward” and that “Everything in Its Path has become a part of the social construction of the modern stereotype of Appalachia.”
Ewen and Lewis highlight dozens of statements from Erikson’s book that demonstrate, they believe, his reinforcement of stereotypes and his “blaming the victim” mentality toward the residents of Buffalo Creek. “The people of Appalachia seem to be forever poised at some vague mid-point between ability and disability,” is one such Erikson statement. “…[I]n true Appalachian fashion, few people are ready to accept the responsibility of leadership” is another.
To counter Erikson’s claims, Ewen and Lewis include survivor testimony that he neglected. They relate the story of a group of survivors who formed their own support group without outside help. “[W]e decided we would band together and hope it would relieve our tensions and fears,” stated one member of the group. Ewen and Lewis also include the story of another survivor who spent five months rebuilding his damaged home rather than letting authorities tear it down (it had been deemed to be damaged beyond repair).
“The fact that the plaintiffs were involved in a lawsuit against Pittston instead of passively accepting their fate was alone evidence of their ability to cope,” Ewen and Lewis write, essentially arguing that Everything in Its Path is myopic in its attention on the community’s destruction. Although influential, the book overlooks the impressive resiliency and advocacy demonstrated by many survivors within the community.
It’s worth noting that, following Buffalo Creek, two commissions were launched. The first was an ad hoc commission established by West Virginia Governor Arch Moore. The commission consisted of nine men with ties to the coal industry—or a vested interest in proving that Pittston Coal and state regulating agencies were not responsible. The second commission, the Citizens’ Commission, was established to counter this bias. The Citizens’ Commission found Pittston Coal reckless and negligent and the state negligent in ensuring safety compliance. Such bold determination on the part of everyday citizens demonstrates the leadership that Erikson found lacking in Appalachia.
Stephen Young, a Marshall University professor and criminologist, recently wrote an article focused on the 2014 Elk River chemical spill, which left 300,000 West Virginians without clean water. Young ranks the spill as but one more state crime in a long list of state crimes, a list on which Buffalo Creek is also included. “Mining industry-related incidents are a longstanding reality for the residents of West Virginia,” Young writes, echoing the sentiments Ralph Nader expressed decades earlier.
Young details the harm of negative Appalachian stereotypes. He argues that stereotypes—particularly the “white trash” stereotypes depicting Appalachians as lazy, ignorant, and hopeless—allow for the continued exploitation of Appalachia by industry. As an article in Vox noted, this kind of stereotyping is on full display in the popular book and film Hillbilly Elegy. Young draws parallels between Appalachia and the colonialist exploitation of Third World countries, as well as the exploitation of communities of color, such as Flint, Michigan. For outsiders, these stereotypes dehumanize the exploited individuals. For the individuals being stereotyped, it can lead to internalization. If a person is so often treated as trash, they may come to believe they are nothing but trash. According to Young, Appalachia is “a region discarded as an expendable population.” But exploring how these negative stereotypes promote such attitudes “can sharpen our understanding and ability to fight the treatment of all current and future oppressed groups.”
The outcome of the lawsuits surrounding Buffalo Creek go far in demonstrating the power divide between the haves and the have-nots in Appalachia. “The law appears ill-suited to relieve the victims of a disaster, who often have been scarred emotionally not by physical contact… but by the destruction of their families, homes, and communities,” writes Robert L. Rabin in a 1978 Stanford Law Review article examining the legal ramifications of Buffalo Creek. For those sympathetic to the survivors, Rabin’s statement rings true. In 1974, the 645 Buffalo Creek residents suing Pittston Coal settled for $13.5 million, which amounted to approximately $13,000 paid out to each plaintiff. In 1977, Governor Moore, with three days left in office, accepted a settlement offer of $1 million for a suit in which the state sought $100 million from the coal company. The governor’s acquiescence proved costly for the state, as West Virginia ended up forced to reimburse the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers $9 million for recovery work.
No dollar amount could ever erase for the survivors what happened at Buffalo Creek. Tom Breiding, a Pittsburgh singer-songwriter with West Virginia roots, saw this firsthand when he traveled to Buffalo Creek for research while composing his 2008 album The Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields. “Somewhere down in this valley I was born,” Breiding sings on the album, adopting the persona of a fourth-generation coal miner who never left home. “No silver spoon, no silver cup.”
While visiting Buffalo Creek, Breiding stood at the very spot where the dams had once been. He spoke with residents, including a woman who said she lost eighteen relatives in the flood. The people he encountered, Breiding said, “were thankful that somebody still remembered, because it’s something that has been buried in many people’s memories and buried in the past.” As William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Buffalo Creek lives on with a legacy of generational trauma for survivors and their kin, but it is often revisited through a legacy of ongoing industrial disasters, from the aforementioned Elk River chemical spill to the 2006 Sago Mine disaster (which killed twelve) and the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster (which killed twenty-nine).
A Buffalo Creek native, Victor M. Depta, gets at this idea of recurring tragedy in a 1973 poem, written not long after the flood. Depta recalls the trailers brought in by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to set up temporary living for the newly homeless. His words paint a picture of a bleak future for a people suffering from a cyclical system of abuse. It wasn’t if Buffalo Creek would ever happen again, but when. Depta writes:
They’re bringing in trailers so the next time there’s a
flood the people will already have their coffins
with little windows and doors and a small latch on
the front to drag them to paradise california.