Monday, February 15, 2021

The Buffalo Creek Flood, Appalachian Stereotypes, and American Politics

On February 26, 1972, the Pittston Coal Company's coal slurry impoundment dam #3, located at the head of a valley in Logan County, West Virginia, failed. A federal inspector had rated it "satisfactory" just four days before. 

About 132 million gallons of coal-stained water poured down the hill and into Buffalo Creek. A black wave 30 feel tall raced down the valley, tearing through 16 small mining towns. About 5,000 people lived in Buffalo Creek Hollow. During the flood, 125 were killed, 1,121 were injured, and over 4,000 were left homeless. More than 500 houses were destroyed, and 44 mobile homes were carried away. Ralph Nader called it a "massacre."

As if things weren't bad enough, a professor from Yale then showed up and proceeded to write a semi-famous book about the disaster. Sociologist Kai Erikson was brought in as an expert witness by the survivors, who filed a class action lawsuit against Pittston Coal. He interviewed hundreds of people and the book he wrote, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

And a lot of people really, really hate it. The book paints the people of the hollow as "prisoners" of the coal companies, and Erikson spent dozens of pages wondering why they didn't just leave. One more recent academic writer complained that Erikson's coal miners and television snake handlers have come to define West Virginia. Everything in its Path is full of sentences like,

The people of Appalachia seem to be forever poised at some vague mid-point between ability and disability. 


In true Appalachian fashion, few people are ready to accept the responsibility of leadership.

Stephen Young, who wrote about a more recent mining dam collapse, insisted that these stereotypes are part of the problem:

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.

There are several interesting questions here. To what extent are these stereotypes true? West Virginia does have the highest rate of people claiming a disability in the US, at 19.1% of the workforce. It also has a terrible problem with opioid abuse. Maine, however, is not far behind on both counts, and it does not have West Virginia's reputation as the capital of hickdom.

Is "why don't people leave the poor counties in West Virginia" a question we should be asking? Or is it just an insult to people who have enough problems without our adding scorn?

You might be thinking, the Buffalo Creek disaster was a crime perpetrated by the coal companies, and that's where we should be putting our attention. Possibly so. But does anybody in West Virginia want coal mining to stop, or for coal companies to face tighter regulation? No. Coal mining in Appalachia has been declining since the 1950s, and the people there understand that tighter regulations would just make it disappear faster. West Virginia coal country went more than 80% for Donald Trump, who promised to relax environmental regulations and bring back coal. 

Liberal professors think it is stereotyping or "othering" that allows the exploitation of people in coal country to proceed, but the people who suffer the most from coal mining want very much for coal mining to continue. It isn't something outsiders are forcing on them. The other political issue West Virginia voters really care about is natural gas fracking, the state's one booming industry; they want more mining of every sort, and more of the tough, dangerous jobs that go with it.

What are we to make of that? Are they foolish? Or are we foolish for wondering why people would want to maintain their parents' way of life?

Video clip from a documentary about the disaster, 8 minutes.


G. Verloren said...

"What are we to make of that? Are they foolish? Or are we foolish for wondering why people would want to maintain their parents' way of life?"

You mention Maine as not having the same sort of reputation that Appalachia does, but right next door you have the Maritimes of Canada, and they DO have that sort reputation, or one similar to it at least.

Consider also the classic Stan Rogers song, "The Idiot", which is sung from the point of view of a Maritimer who has left their beloved home and all they know to seek work at a refinery in western Alberta. It inverts the question of "why don't they leave", because it provides an answer for why someone -would- leave: pride.


I often take these night shift walks
When the foreman’s not around
I turn my back on the cooling stacks
And make for open ground
Far out beyond the tank-farm fence
Where the gas flare makes no sound
I forget the stink and I always think
Back to that Eastern town

I remember back six years ago
This western life I chose
And every day the news would say
Some factory’s going to close
Well, I could have stayed to take the dole
But I’m not one of those
I take nothing free, and that makes me
An idiot, I suppose

So I bid farewell to the Eastern town
I never more will see
But work I must so I eat this dust
And breathe refinery
Oh I miss the green and the woods and streams
And I don’t like cowboy clothes
But I like being free and that makes me
An idiot, I suppose

So come all you fine young fellows
Who’ve been beaten to the ground
This western life’s no paradise
But it’s better than lying down
Oh the streets aren’t clean, and there’s nothing green
And the hills are dirty brown
But the government dole will rot your soul
Back there in your home town

So bid farewell to the Eastern town
You never more will see
There’s self-respect and a steady cheque
In this refinery
You will miss the green and the woods and streams
And the dust will fill your nose
But you’ll be free, and just like me
An idiot, I suppose


There are people in this world who simply refuse assistance from others - they view it as shameful to ever "be weak" and need help, and would rather move away from everything they love to go live in a place they hate working an awful job, than to accept anything even resembling charity. Even when the government offers them financial help to allow them to stay, they would rather leave than "accept handouts".

And I think there's a related sort of pride at work in Appalachia - a stubborn insistence for dying upon their chosen hill (literally), because to do otherwise would be to "be weak" and need help.

The Maritimes saw people leaving because the dominant fishing and timber industries there collapsed more or less utterly, and even if they wanted to stay, there would be no work for them, and they'd have to live off government assistance. But in Appalachia, there are still jobs - they're awful, miserable jobs that keep families locked in poverty and exploitation, but they are jobs. And so people stay to work those jobs, even when the government offers them financial assistance to move elsewhere with better prospects - because they would rather stay than accept handouts.

David said...


Very nice post. Love Stan Rogers!


Ugh, that Kai Erikson book sounds awful. "In true Appalachian fashion" amounts to another episode of Rorty's socially-accepted sadism. It's a smug faculty-lounge quip, not scholarship.

No surprise I'm not a fan of "why don't you just quit?" approaches, whether they're directed toward Hollywood actors or Appalachian coal miners. To me, that sort of rationalism is beside the point, including when practiced by liberals on right-wing populations. I managed to get through about 10 minutes of "Strangers in Their Own Land" before I had to, well, quit.

Populations do have cultures and tendencies, and some of them can be quite puzzling to academic observers. But it's important for academics to always at least try for the approach of ignorance seeking understanding.

David said...

I guess I would add that I don't mean that observers should abandon judgment. I think there's a strange alchemy whereby judging someone else as bad, or having bad beliefs, shows a kind of respect, whereas judging someone else to be a fool does not.

John said...

Thanks to both of you. I am genuinely perplexed about both the actual situation in southern West Virginia and the question of how academics ought to write about it. These days sociologists and anthropologists see themselves as advocates for poor communities more than anything else. I understand why, but I wonder if that leads to ignoring important questions.