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."
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.
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.