Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood
Kai T. Erikson
Collective Trauma: Loss of Community
The disaster stretched human nerves to their outer edge. Those of us who did not experience it can never really comprehend the full horror of that day, but we can at least appreciate why it should cause such misery and why it should leave so deep a scar on the minds of those who lived through it. Our imagination can reach across the gulf of personal experience and begin to re-create those parts of the scene that touch the senses. Our eyes can almost see a burning black wave lashing down the hollow and taking everything in its path. The ears can almost hear a roar like thunder, pierced by screams and explosions and the crack of breaking timbers. The nostrils can almost smell the searing stench of mine wastes and the sour odor of smoke and death and decay. All this we can begin to picture because the mind is good at imagery.
But the people of Buffalo Creek suffered a good deal more that day, for they were wrenched out of their communities, torn from the human surround in which they had been so deeply enmeshed. Much of the drama drains away when we begin to talk about such things, partly because the loss of communality seems a step removed from the vivid terror of the event itself and partly because the people of the hollow, so richly articulate when describing the flood and their reaction to it, do not really know how to express what their separation from the familiar tissues of home has meant to them. The closeness of communal ties is experienced on Buffalo Creek as a part of the natural order of things, and residents can no more describe that presence than fish are aware of the water they swim in. It is just there, the envelope in which they live, and is taken entirely for granted. In this chapter, then, as in the preceding ones, I will use quotations freely, but one must now listen even more carefully for the feelings behind the words as well as registering the content of the words themselves.
I use the term “communality” here rather than “community” in order to underscore the point that people are not referring to particular village territories when they lament the loss of community but to the network of relationships that make up their general human surround. The persons who constitute the center of that network are usually called “neighbors,” the word being used in its Biblical sense to identify those whom one shares bonds of intimacy and a feeling of mutual concern. The people of Buffalo Creek are “neighbor” people,” which is a local way of referring to a style of relationship long familiar among social scientists. Toennies called it “gemeinschaft,” Cooley called it “primary,” Durkheim called it “mechanical,” Redfield called it “folk,” and every generation of social scientists since has found other ways to express the same thought, one of the most recent being Herbert Gans’s concept of “person orientation.”
What’s a neighbor? Well, when I went to my neighbor’s house on Saturday or Sunday, if I wanted a cup of coffee I never waited until the lady of the house asked me. I just went into the dish cabinet and got me a cup of coffee or a glass of juice just like it was my own home. They come to my house, they done the same. See? We was like one big family. Like when somebody was hurt, everybody was hurt. You know, I guess it was because it was the same people all the time. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a good feeling. It’s more than friends. If someone was hurt, everybody was concerned, everybody. If somebody lost a member of their family, they was always there. Everybody was around bringing you something to eat, trying to help. It’s a deeper feeling. Here, if you have a neighbor, it’s somebody you know, it’s somebody that maybe you take them to the store. I mean, to us neighbors are people that we have. We just know each other, that’s all.
Neighbor? It means relationship. It means kin. It means friend you could depend on. You never went to a neighbor with a complaint that they didn’t listen to or somebody didn’t try to help you with. That’s a neighbor. When you wanted a baby-sitter you went next door and they’d baby-sit. Or you did something for them. They’d either need something or we’d need something, you know. When you see somebody going down the road, it’s “Where are you going?” “To the store.” “Well, bring me back such and such.”
A neighbor, then, is someone you can relate to without pretense, a familiar and reliable part of your everyday environment; a neighbor is someone you treat as if he or she were a member of your immediate family. A good deal has been said in the literature on Appalachia about the clannishness of mountain life, but on Buffalo Creek, as in many coal camps, this sense of tribal attachment reaches beyond linkages of kin to include a wider circle, and the obligations one feels toward the people within that circle are not unlike the obligations one normally feels toward one’s own family.
In good times, then, every person on Buffalo Creek looks out at the larger community from a fairly intimate neighborhood niche. If we were to devise a map representing the average person’s social world, we would capture at least the main contours by drawing a number of concentric circles radiating out from the individual centerthe inner ring encompassing one’s immediate family, the next ring encompassing one’s closest neighbors, the third encompassing the familiar people with whom one relates on a regular basis, and the fourth encompassing the other people whom one recognizes as a part of the Buffalo Creek community even though one does not really know them well. Beyond the outermost of those rings is the rest of the world, the terrain populated by what an older generation called “foreigners.” Given the size of Buffalo Creek, it is obvious that the community contained people who were relative strangers to one another. Yet there was a clear sense of kinship linking even those relative strangers togetheralthough, as we shall see shortly, that sense of kinship turned out to depend to a greater degree than people realized on the security of one’s neighborhood niche.
Communality on Buffalo Creek can best be described as a state of mind shared among a particular gathering of people, and this state of mind, by definition, does not lend itself to sociological abstraction. It does not have a name or a cluster of distinguishing properties. It is a quiet set of understandings that become absorbed into the atmosphere and are thus a part of the natural order. The remarks below, for example, are separate attempts by a husband and wife to explain the nature of those “understandings.”
Braeholm was more like a family. We had a sort of understanding. If someone was away, then we sort of looked after each other’s property. We didn’t do a lot of visiting, but we had a general understanding. If we cooked something, we would exchange dishes. It was sort of a close-knit type of thing. Before the disaster, the neighbors, we could look out and tell when one another needed help or when one was sick or something was disturbing that person. We could tell from the lights. If the lights was on late at night, we knew that something unusual was going on and we would go over. Sometimes I’d come in from work on a cold day and my neighbor would have a pot of soup for me. There was just things you wouldn’t think about. I would look forward to going to the post office. If my car wouldn’t start, all I’d have to do is call my neighbors and they would take me to work. If I was there by myself or something, if my husband was out late, the neighbors would come over and check if everything was okay. So it was just a rare thing. It was just a certain type of relationship that you just knew from people growing up together and sharing the same experiences. And the key to that network of understandings was a constant readiness to look after one’s neighbors, or, rather, to know without being asked what needed to be done.
If you had problems, you wouldn’t even have to mention it. People would just know what to do. They’d just pitch in and help. Everyone was concerned about everyone else. I don’t think there was a better place in the world to live. People was there when you needed them. You got sick, they helped you. If you needed help of any kind, you got it. You didn’t even have to ask for it. Now I’m a person that didn’t make friends easy. I wasn’t hard to get along with, I just didn’t mix. But I knew everybody, andwell, I just don’t know no way to explain it to you, to make you see it.
You’d just have to experience it, I guess, to really know. It was wonderful. Like when my father died. My neighbors all came in and they cleaned my house, they washed my clothes, they cooked. I didn’t do nothing. They knew what to do. I mean it’s just like teamwork, you know. If one of the kids was sick, they’d drop every what they were doing, take the kid to the hospital or sit up all night with him. It was just good. How did they know when you needed help? I don’t know how to explain it, really. The morning my daddy diedhe died in Loganmy aunt called me and told me on the phone at about ten o’clock in the morning, and I had just got time to get off the phone and go set on the bed and in come three of my neighbors. They knew it that quick. I don’t know how. They just knew.
The difficulty is that when you invest so much of yourself in that kind of social arrangement you become absorbed by it, almost captive to it, and the larger collectivity around you becomes an extension of your own personality, an extension of your own flesh. This means that not only are you diminished as a person when that surrounding tissue is stripped away, but that you are no longer able to reclaim as your own the emotional resources you invested in it. To be “neighborly” is not a quality you can carry with you into a new situation like negotiable emotional currency; the old community was your niche in the classic ecological sense, and your ability to relate to that niche is not a skill easily transferred to another setting. This is true whether you move into another community, as was the case with the first speaker below, or whether a new set of neighbors moves in around your old home, as was the case with the second.
Well, I have lost all my friends. The people I was raised up and lived with, they’re scattered. I don’t know where they’re at. I’ve got to make new friends, and that’s a hard thing to do. You don’t make new friends and feel towards them like you did the people you lived with. See, I raised my family there. We moved there in ’35 and stayed there. I knew everybody in the camp and practically everybody on Buffalo, as far as that is concerned. But down here, there ain’t but a few people I know, and you don’t feel secure around people you don’t know.
Neighbors. We used to have our children at home, we didn’t go to hospitals to have children. The one on this side of me, them two in the back of me, this one in front of methey all lived there and we all had our children together. Now I’ve got all new neighbors. I even asked my husband to put our home up for sale, and he said, “What do you think we’re going to do? We’re old people, we can’t take to buy another home.” And I said, “I don’t care what you do with it, I’m not staying here. I can’t tell you in words what’s the matter.” I said, “I don’t care if we go to the moon, let’s just get out of here. I’m just not interested enough anymore. You go out the back door here and there’s a new neighbor. In front of me is a new neighbor and on the other side of me is a new neighbor. It’s just not the same home that I’ve been living in for thirty-five years. It’s just not the same to me.”
A community of the sort we are talking about here derives from and depends on an almost perfect democracy of the spirit, where people are not only assumed to be equal in status but virtually identical in temperament and outlook. Classes of people may be differentiated for certain purposeswomen from men, adults from children, whites from blacks, and so onbut individual persons are not distinguished from one another on the basis of rank, occupation, style of life, or even recreational habits. This is not hard to understand as a practical matter. The men all work at the same jobs; the women all command domestic territories of roughly the same original size and quality; the children all attend the same schools as an apprenticeship for the same futures; and everybody buys the same goods at the same stores from equivalent paychecks. Yet the leveling tendency goes even beyond that, for the people of the hollow, like the people of Appalachia generally, do not like to feel different from their fellows and tend to see status distinctions of any kind as fissures in the smooth surface of the community. Good fences may make good neighbors in places like New Hampshire, where relationships depend on cleanly marked parcels of individual space, but they are seen as lines of division in places like Buffalo Creek.
In most of the urban areas of America, each individual is seen as a separate being, with careful boundaries drawn around the space he or she occupies as a discrete personage. Everyone is presumed to have an individual name, an individual mind, an individual voice, and above all, an individual sense of selfso much so that persons found deficient in any of those qualities are urged to take some kind of remedial action such as undergoing psychotherapy, participating in a consciousness raising group, or reading one of a hundred different manuals on self-actualization. This way of looking at things, however, has hardly any meaning at all in most Appalachia. There, boundaries are drawn around whole groups of people, not around separate individuals with egos to protect and potentialities to realize; and a person’s mental health is measured less by his capacity to express his inner self than by his capacity to submerge that self into a larger communal whole.
It was once fashionable in the social sciences generally to compare human communities to living organisms. Scholars anxious to make the kind of distinction I am wrestling with now would argue that persons who belong to traditional communities relate to one another in much the same fashion as the cells of a body: they are dependent on one another for definition, they do not have any real function or identity apart from the contribution they make to the whole organization, and they suffer a form of death when separated from that larger tissue. Science may have gained something when this analogy was abandoned, but it may have lost something, too, for a community of the kind being discussed here does bear at least a figurative resemblance to an organism. In places like Buffalo Creek, the community in general can be described as the locus for activities that are normally regarded as the exclusive property of individuals. It is the community that cushions pain, the community that provides a context for intimacy, the community that represents morality and serves as the repository for old traditions.
Now one has to realize when talking like this that one is in danger of drifting off into a realm of metaphor. Communities do not have hearts or sinews or ganglia; they do not suffer or rationalize or experience joy. But the analogy does help suggest that a cluster of people acting in concert and moving to the same collective rhythms can allocate their personal resources in such a way that the whole comes to have more humanity than its constituent parts. In effect, people put their own individual resources at the disposal of the groupplacing them in the communal store, as it wereand then draw on that reserve supply for the demands of everyday life. And if the whole community more or less disappears, as happened on Buffalo Creek, people find that they cannot take advantage of the energies they once invested in the communal store. They find that they are almost empty of feeling, empty of affection, empty of confidence and assurance. It is as if the individual cells had supplied raw energy to the whole body but did not have the means to convert that energy back into a usable personal form once the body was no longer there to process it. When an elderly woman on Buffalo Creek said softly, “I just don’t take no interest in nothing like I used to, I don’t have no feeling for nothing, I feel like I’m drained of life,” she was reflecting a spirit still unable to recover for its own use all the life it had signed over to the community.
I am going to propose, then, that most of the traumatic symptoms experienced by the Buffalo Creek survivors are a reaction to the loss of communality as well as a reaction to the disaster itself, that the fear and apathy and demoralization one encounters along the entire length of the hollow are derived from the shock of being ripped out of a meaningful community setting as well as the shock of meeting that cruel black water. The line between the two is difficult to draw, as one survivor suggested:
We can’t seem to put it all together. We try, but it just isn’t there. It may be the shock of the disaster or the aftermath of it all. I don’t know. It’s hard to separate the two. But it seems clear that much of the agony experienced on Buffalo Creek is related to the fact that the hollow is quiet, devastated, without much in the way of a nourishing community life. What is Buffalo Creek like now? The shorter answers were crisp and to the point.
It is almost like a ghost town now.
It has changed from the community of paradise to Death Valley. Some reason or other, it’s not the same. Seems like it’s frozen. I don’t know. A dreary hollow is how it seems to me. It’s like a graveyard, that’s what. A cemetery.
And the longer answers seemed almost to fuse together into a long litany of despair. There is something missing, something gone; and that something is very hard to pin down.
I have found that most of the people are depressed, unhappy, mournful, sick. When you go up Buffalo Creek the only remains you see is an occasional house here and there. The people who are living in the trailers have a depressed and worried look on their faces. You don’t see children out playing and running as before. Buffalo Creek looks like a deserted, forsaken place.
What I miss most is the friendliness and closeness of the people of Buffalo Creek. The people are changed from what they were before the disaster. Practically everyone seems despondent and undecided, as if they were waiting for something and did not know what. They can’t reconcile themselves to the fact that things will never be the same again.
The best I could tell you, what lives on Buffalo Creek lives in sorrow. I’ve talked to so many people and they are so tore up. Some of them just don’t care anymore. There’s a part of us all missing somewhere. It’s kind of sad around there now. There’s not much happiness. You don’t have any friends around, people around, like we had before. Some of them are in the trailer camps. Some of them bought homes and moved away. Some of them just left and didn’t come back. It’s like teeth in an old folk’s mouth down there now. This whole thing is a nightmare, actually. Our life-style has been disrupted, our home destroyed. We lost many things we loved, and we think about those things. We think about our neighbors and friends we lost. Our neighborhood was completely destroyed, a disaster area. There’s just an open field there now and grass planted where they were many homes and many people lived. We did lose a community, and I mean it was a good community. Everybody was close, everybody knowed everybody. But now everybody is alone. They act like they’re lost. They’ve lost their homes and their way of life, the one they liked, the one they was used to. All the houses are gone, every one of them. The people are gone, scattered. You don’t know who your neighbor is going to be. You can’t go next door and talk. You can’t do that no more, there’s no next door. You can’t laugh with friends. You can’t do that no more because there’s not friends around to laugh with. That don’t happen no more. There’s nobody around to even holler at and say “Hi,” and you can’t help but miss that. You haven’t got nobody to talk to. The people that is there are so busy trying to put back what they have lost.
And so it goes. The observer listening in on all this has to confront two related problems. The firs of those problems, of course, is that the words people are accustomed to using in everyday speech seem pale and insubstantial when assigned the job of conveying so immense a subject. This is true for survivors who are trying to find ways to express their sense of loss, but it is also true for observers who are looking for ways to pose questions. At one point in the study, realizing that I would never have time to interview everyone in the plaintiff group, I sent a questionnaire to some five hundred persons asking for a few brief answers to a few crisp questions. Some of those answers have appeared in the material presented so far, and others will appear later. But most of the answers reached so far beyond the questions that I did not really know what to do with them. It was as if I had asked people to compress a world of grief in the space reserved for a sentence or two. “What do you miss most about the old community?”
All my family were killed here. My old home is gone and I can’t tell where it used to be. I don’t know where any of my friends are now. I never see anyone anymore. Once the observed gets over his embarrassment at having tried to confront so deep a pain with so casual an inquiry, he begins to recognize the futility of trying to convert everything into the coin of words. And yet the emotion behind the words seems easy enough to detect if one searches for it. One must look for the particular in a comment as general as this:
Everything has changed. Nothing is the same. The people that were left up there has changed. They don’t seem like the same people I once knew. It don’t look like the same place. And one must look for the general in a comment as particular as this:
I miss my house and furnishings and clothing, which I have very little of now. I had a large yard, two shade trees. I miss it very much. I miss the pictures from the school yearbook. A lot of things. It’s hard to explain.
The second problem has to do with the extraordinary repetitiveness of the comments people make, a problem we have already encountered. This study is based on thousands of pages of transcript material, whole packing boxes full of it, yet a researcher is very apt to conclude after rummaging through these data that there is really not very much to say after all. This is not because the material is contradictory or difficult to interpret but because it is so bleakly alike. I noted earlier that the psychiatric evaluations seem to indicate that virtually everybody who managed to survive the flood has suffered at one time or another from anxiety, depression, apathy, insomnia, phobic reactions, and a pervasive feeling of depletion and loneliness. What makes these data so frustrating is that one reads and hears the same remarks again and again, almost as if a script had been passed around the creek. At first glance, it does seem logical that something of the sort may have happened; phrases that do a particularly apt job of capturing a feeling common to many people may have circulated up and down the hollow, expressions that strike a common chord may have come to serve as a group explanation for what are otherwise individual emotions. But this theory, common in disaster research, will not serve entirely. For one thing, the survivors are scattered all over the area and do not keep in close touch with one another, and for another thing, those who do keep in touch generally make a point of talking about something else.
So the only reasonable conclusion one can reach is that the second trauma involves a syndrome as general and as encompassing as the first, and that we are dealing with a phenomenon stretching across the whole of the community.
Certain features of that syndrome, of course, must be understood as local to the particular situation of Buffalo Creek, but others appear to be common to large-scale disasters in general, and we should pause here for a moment to consider the distinction between the two.
Virtually every study of a disaster in the social science literature reports that the first reaction of survivors is a state of dazed shock and numbness, and one of the reasons for that stunned reactionthe main one, according to researchers like Anthony F.C. Wallaceis a feeling on the part of the survivor that the larger community has been demolished. Even when the individual has not suffered any serious personal loss and has not been exposed to any immediate danger, he is shocked by the “cultural damage” and is likely to drift around in a state of “stunned disbelief” at the sight of his home territory in shambles. Wallace studied Worcester, Massachusetts, in the period following a vicious tornado, and he concluded in part:
The precipitating factor in the disaster syndrome seems to be a perception…that practically the entire visible community is in ruins. The sight of a ruined community, with houses, churches, trees, stores, and everything wrecked, is apparently often consciously or unconsciously interpreted as a destruction of the whole world. Many persons, indeed, actually were conscious of, and reported, this perception in interviews, remarking that the thought had crossed their minds that “this was the end of the world,” “an atom bomb had dropped,” “the universe had been destroyed,” etc. The objects with which he has identification, and to which his behavior is normally turned, have been removed. He has been suddenly shorn of much of the support and assistance of a culture and a society upon which he depends and from which he draws sustenance; he has been deprived of the instrumentalities by which he has manipulated his environment; he has been, in effect, castrated, rendered impotent, separated from all sources of support, and left naked and alone, without a sense of his own identity, in a terrifying wilderness of ruins.1
Wallace’s point here is that the most prominent features of the “disaster syndrome”the numbness and apathy and insomnia and depressionare in part a reaction to the thought that the community, and maybe even the whole world, has been obliterated altogether and can no longer serve as a source of personal support. We will see in a moment that many survivors of the Buffalo Creek flood felt the world had come to an end, and several of them, like the woman quoted below, were afraid for one terrible moment that they were the only persons left alive.
And so we got up there on the hill and I looked back and said “It might have been best if we’d all gone with it, because I don’t see nobody else.” I couldn’t see nobody else nowhere. As far as we knew, we were the only ones alive. The symptoms that make up the disaster syndrome, then, are the classic symptoms of mourning and bereavement. People are grieving for their lost friends and homes, but they are grieving too for their lost cultural surround; and they feel dazed at least in part because they are not sure what to do in the absence of that familiar setting. They have lost their navigational equipment, as it were, both their inner compasses and their outer maps.
Among the characteristics of the disaster syndrome, according to Wallace, is a “stage of euphoria”a sudden and logically inexplicable wave of good feeling that comes over survivors shortly after the disaster itselfand this feature of the post-disaster experience, too, has been noted by a number of other observers. The following remark, for example, is from a study of tornado damage in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Many observers have commented on the increased intimacy and solidarity which characterizes populations in the post-disaster period. There seems to be a general reaching out to others and a readiness to share one’s resources and experiences that lasts for a considerable period of time after a disaster. We have found it helpful to think about this process of reaching out as being in part a means of reassurance after the crisis is over. It seems to be a way of achieving a sort of talismanic protection which comes from figuratively (and literally) touching one’s fellows.2
Other researchers have indeed reported the same findings. S.H. Prince, studying a ship explosion in Halifax, talked about a “city of comrades.” R. I. Kutak, studying a flood in Louisville, talked about a “democracy of distress.” Charles E. Fritz, studying a tornado in Arkansas, referred to a “community of sufferers.” Martha Wolfenstein, reviewing the literature on disasters in general, called the phenomenon a “post-disaster utopia,” while Allen H. Barton, having surveyed much the same literature, spoke of an “altruistic community.”3
Wallace attributes this stage of euphoria to a discovery on the part of survivors that the general community is not really dead after all. The energy with which rescue operations are pursued and the cooperation of neighbors act to reassure people that there is still life among the ruins, and they respond with an outpouring of communal feeling, an urgent need to make contact with and even touch others by way of renewing old pledges of fellowship. They are celebrating the recovery of the community they once thought dead, and, in a way, they are celebrating their own rebirth.4 I mention all this because nothing of the sort seems to have occurred on Buffalo Creek, even for a moment, and this raises a number of important issues. On the more general level, it may very well be that the emergence of a stage of euphoria depends upon the continuance of most of the larger community, so that survivors, digging out from under the masses of debris, can discover that most of the body is still intact and is mobilizing its remaining resources to dress the wound on its flank. In Buffalo Creek this was simply not the case. Most of the work of rescue was done by outsiders following plans and initiatives issued from distant headquarters. They were strangers, many of them in uniform, and they cleaned up the wreckage without consulting the owners, sealed off the residents from their own homes, and generally acted more like an army of occupation than a local disaster team. No wonder that the suspicion of looting was so widespread.
The work of those outsiders restored order on Buffalo Creek, and most of the survivors were glad to acknowledge the help:
The first couple of days there didn’t seem to be any organization at all. You know, people running around, not knowing what to do. Then the National Guard came in and started taking people back out across the mountain. Things were beginning to take on a little organization then. Up to then, it seemed dark and unreal.
But the feeling was general, nonetheless, that the people of the hollow had lost control of their own home territory, and this could only add to the perception that the immediate community had disappeared.
In most disasters, according to available reports, the initial state of shock wears off quickly. Two of the most experienced students of human disasters state flatly that “disasters do not generally have disabling emotional consequences or leave numbing mental health problems among any large numbers of their victims.”5 One reason for this outcome, they suggest, is that victims are invariably outnumbered by non-victims in situations like this, leaving a more or less intact community into which those affected by the disaster can be gradually reabsorbed. On Buffalo Creek, of course, the victims outnumbered the non-victims by so large a margin that the community itself has to be counted a casualty.
The lack of a discernable wave of euphoria, then, as well as the inability of the survivors to recover from the initial effects of the “disaster syndrome” had something to do with conditions local to Buffalo Creek; and in order to follow that line of approach properly, we should again look for particular themes in the larger syndrome.
Before doing so, however, one reservation should probably be noted in passing. I am talking about syndrome here, by which I mean that the experience of the disaster and its aftermath was generally shared by all the survivors. But this does not suggest that the suffering itself was quantitatively the same for everyone, and, in reading the material to follow, it may be worth keeping in mind that people living in the higher reaches of the hollow saw a great deal more destruction than those living farther down, and that women may be more distressed on the average than men, if only because the men can fall back, if weakly, on the fellowship of work. These differences are not great, however, because everybody on Buffalo Creek, regardless of his or her exposure to the black water, was implicated in the loss of communality, and in that regard, at least, all were hurt in much the same way. This does not appear to have become a new basis for community, as has so often been the case in other disasters, but it has certainly contributed to the leveling tendency already pronounced along the creek.
One further note before we move on to the particular themes. It is quite likely that the survivors’ memories of the old community are somewhat idealized, partly because it is natural for people to exaggerate the standard against which they measure their present distress, and partly because the past always seems to take on a more golden glow as it recedes in the distance. It is important to remember and to make allowance for that idealization, but it is also important to remember that the ideal tone of those memories, whatever its basis in fact, has now become the only relevant reality to the people of Buffalo Creek. One way to convey the sharpness of one’s pain is to contrast it with a climate that may never have existed in quite the form it is remembered, but the need to do this is itself a strong indication of how deep that pain must be.
MORALE AND MORALITY
The Buffalo Creek survivors face the post-disaster world in a state of severe demoralization, both in the sense that they have lost much of their individual morale and in the sense that they have lost (or fear they have lost) most of their moral anchors.
The lack of morale is reflected in a weary apathy, a feeling that the world has more or less come to an end and that there are no longer any compelling reasons for doing anything. People are drained of energy and conviction, in part because the activities that once sustained them on an everyday basisworking, caring, playingseem to have lost their direction and purpose in the absence of a larger communal setting. They feel that the ground has gone out from under them.
People don’t know what they want or where they want to go. It is almost as though they don’t care what happens anymore. My husband and myself used to enjoy working and improving on our home, but we don’t have the heart to do anything anymore. It’s just a dark cloud hanging over our head. I just can’t explain how we feel.
I don’t know. I just got to the point where I just more or less don’t care. I don’t have no ambition to do the things I used to do. I used to try to keep things up, but anymore I just don’t. It seems I just do enough to get by, to make it last one more day. It seems like I just lost everything at once, like the bottom just dropped out of everything.
I don’t have the heart to work. I don’t know. I just don’t feel like it. It used to tickle me to get ready to go to work, but now it seems like I’ve got a dread on my mind or something. The clinical name for this state of mind, of course, is depression, and one can hardly escape the conclusion that it is, at least in part, a reaction to the ambiguities of post-disaster life in the hollow. Most of the survivors never realized the extent to which they relied on the rest of the community to reflect back a sense of meaning to them, never understood the extent of reference. When survivors say they feel “adrift,” “displaced,” “uprooted,” “lost,” they mean that they do not seem to belong to anything and that there are no longer any familiar social landmarks to help them fix their position in time and space. They are depressed, yes, but it is a depression born of the feeling that they are suspended pointlessly in the middle of nowhere. “It is like being alone in the middle of the desert,” said one elderly woman who lives with her retired husband in a cluster of homes. As she talked, the voices of the new neighbors could be heard in the background; but they were not her neighbors, not her people, and the rhythms of their lives did not provide her with any kind of orientation.
This failure of personal morale is accompanied by a deep suspicion that moral standards are beginning to collapse all over the hollow, and in some ways, at least, it would appear that they are. As so frequently happens in human life, the forms of misbehavior people find cropping up in their midst are exactly those which are most sensitive. The use of alcohol, always problematic in mountain society, has evidently increased, and there are rumors spreading throughout the trailer camps that drugs have found their way into the area. The theft rate has gone up too, and this has always been viewed in Appalachia as a sure index of social disorganization. The cruelest cut of all, however, is that once close and devoted families are having trouble staying within the pale they once observed so carefully. Adolescent boys and girls appear to be slipping away from parental control and are becoming involved in nameless delinquencies, while there are reports from several of the trailer camps that younger wives and husbands are meeting one another in circumstances that violate all the local codes. A home is a moral sphere as well as a physical dwelling, of course, and it would seem that the boundaries of moral washed down the creek. The problem is a complex one. People simply do not have enough to do, especially teenagers, and “fooling around” becomes one of the few available forms of recreation. People have old memories and old guilts to cope with, especially the seasoned adults, and drinking becomes a way to accomplish that end. And, for everyone, skirting the edges of once-forbidden territory is a way to bring new excitement and a perverse but lively kind of meaning into lives that are otherwise without it.
A widow in her forties speaking of her sixteen-year-old daughter:
And then she started running with the wrong crowds. She started drinking. She started taking dope. And feelings wasn’t the same between her and I. Before the flood it wasn’t like that at all. A retired miner in his sixties speaking of himself:
I did acquire a very bad drinking problem after the flood which I’m doing my level best now to get away from. I was trying to drink, I guess, to forget a lot of things and get them removed from my mind, and I just had to stop because I was leading the wrong way. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that’s not it. I don’t want to drink. I never was taught that. I’ve drunk a right smart in my life, but that’s not the answer. And a woman in her late twenties who had recently moved out of the largest of the trailer camps:
There was all kinds of mean stuff going on up there. I guess it still does, to hear the talk. I haven’t been back up there since we left. Men is going with other men’s wives. And drinking parties. They’d play horseshoes right out by my trailer, and they’d play by streetlight until four or five in the morning. I’d get up in the morning and I’d pick up beer cans until I got sick. The flood done something to people, that’s what it is. It’s changed people. Good people has got bad. They don’t care anymore. “We’re going to live it up now because we might be gone tomorrow,” that’s the way they look at it. They call that camp “Peyton Place,” did you know that? Peyton Place. I was scared to death up there. I don’t even like to go by it.
Yet the seeming collapse of morality on Buffalo Creek differs in several important respects from the kinds of anomie sociologists think they see elsewhere in modern America. For one thing, those persons who seem to be deviating most emphatically from prevailing community norms are usually the first to judge their own behavior as unacceptable, even obnoxious. Adolescents are eager to admit that they sometimes get into trouble, and those of their elders who drink more than the rules of the hollow normally permita couple of beers exceeds the limit for mostare likely to call themselves “alcoholics” under circumstances that seem remarkably premature to jaded strangers from the urban North. To that extent, the consensus has held: local standards as to what qualifies as deviation remain largely intact, even though a number of people see themselves as drifting away from that norm. Moreover, there is an interesting incongruity in the reports of immorality one hears throughout the hollow. It would seem that virtually everyone in the trailer camps is now living next to persons of lower moral stature than was the case formerly, and this, of and by itself, is a logistical marvel; for where did all those sordid people come from? How could a community of decent souls suddenly generate so much iniquity? It probably makes sense to suppose, as the last speaker quoted above did, that quite a few of the survivors are acting more coarsely now than they did before the disaster. But something else may be going on her too. The unfamiliar people who move next door and bring their old styles of life with them may be acting improperly by some objective measure or they may not, but they are always acting in an unfamiliar way, and the fact of the matter may very well be that relative strangers, even if they come from the same general community, are almost by definition less “moral” than immediate neighbors. They do not fall within the pale of local clemency, as it were, and so do not qualify for the allowances neighbors make for one another on the grounds that they know the motives involved (“we don’t worry none about that, it’s just the way Billy is”). One can find a strong hint of this in the following comment:
I think that morals have degenerated. I think that is a characteristic of the whole society of Buffalo Creek now. Things which I didn’t notice before. I have been in all areas of Buffalo Creek and it has never manifested itself as it has now. It is much more open. I have lived on Buffalo Creek all of my life. Before, you had the town drunk and that sort of thing. You knew which family did what. Everyone knew everyone’s business. But now it seems it is much more open. No matter where you go, this type of thing is going on where it didn’t before. Clearly, the speaker is lamenting the apparent rise of immorality on her home turf, but she is also suggesting that the old communal order of the hollow had niches for some forms of deviation, like the role of the town drunk, and ways to absorb others into the larger tissue of everyday life. But the disaster had washed away the packing around those niches, leaving the occupants exposed to the frowning glances of new neighbors. So the problem has two dimensions. On the one hand, people who had not engaged in any kind of misbehavior before were now, by their own admission, doing so. On the other hand, the unfamiliar manners of a relative stranger seem to hint darkly of sin all by themselves, and personal habits that once passed as mild eccentricities in the old neighborhood now begin to look like brazen vices in the harsher light of the new neighborhood. A resident in one of the smaller trailer camps said:
Well, living there was an intolerable situation for me because my children were exposed to people that I didn’t want my children to be around. There were drunkards. There were fights, vulgar language. And all of these were situations to which my children had never been exposed. This is not the type of home life we have nor our friends and families have. Even the small children used language which I didn’t approve. And other person living a short distance away echoed the same thought.
The people of Buffalo Creek tended to group themselves together; therefore the breaking up of the old communities threw all kinds of different people together. At the risk of sounding superior, I feel we are living amidst people with lower moral values than us.
Perhaps so. There is no question but that “immorality” is on the rise, and there is a clear hint in some of the complaints along these linesalthough not in the one above, as I happen to knowthat the protesting voices issue from white mouths and are referring to black manners. But the people of “lower moral values” who populate the various trailer camps come from the general community too, and if some of them really are less well behaved in fact, the rest, in their turn, appear to have their own doubts about the new neighbors across the way. Everyone appears to be scanning a sea of unfamiliar faces and sensing that a fair amount of evil lurks out there.
“Morality” is a curious notion anyway. Theories of human nature generally assume that moral posture is shaped not only by the voices of conscience from within but by the voices of authority from without. Most of those outer voices have disappeared on Buffalo Creek for the good reason that people do not pay that much attention to one another anymore, but the inner voices, even, seem to have lost much of their forceas if they were wilting from lack of nourishment. In the long run, perhaps, morality is a form of community participation. To be moral is to keep faith with the generality of one’s fellows, to be in tune with the values of the larger collectivity. No matter how stern and unrelenting one’s inner voices may turn out to be, they rarely outlast the community structures that molded them and gave them tone.
It has been noted many times that the survivors of a disaster are likely to be dazed and stunned afterward, unable to locate themselves in time and place. Time stops. Places and objects seem transitory. Survivors have trouble finding stable points of reference in the surrounding terrain, both physical and social, to help them fix their position and orient their behavior.
The people of Buffalo Creek responded to the events of February 26 in just that way. Many of them reported that the flow of time seemed to stop all at once: “everything has stopped,” “the end is here,” “there can be no tomorrow,” “time stopped for us,” “our lives are over.” For a long time after the disaster, people were uncertain as to where they belonged in the universe and how they should behave in relation to it: “I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know anything.”
Now all of this can be understood as a natural result of shock, but the fact is that people continued to experience that same sense of disorientation for months and even years after the flood had passed. “We find ourselves standing, not knowing exactly which way to go or where to turn,” said one survivor. “They should call this whole hollow the Bureau of Misplaced Persons,” said another; “we’re all just lost.” The hollow is changed, of course, and people continue to live unsettled lives. But the familiar hills are still there. The old road, though damaged and scarred, curves its way up the narrow valley as before. The schools have reopened, the stores are back in business, the churches are functioning, the men have returned to work. By now, it would seem, a certain equilibrium should have been restored. But, no. Along the entire length of Buffalo Creek, people continue to feel that they are lost in “a strange and different place.”