Looking at the Buffalo Creek Disaster Through a Sociologist’s View
Buffalo Creek is a small community located in West Virginia. In the year of 1972, about five thousand people called Buffalo Creek their home. Almost every male in this community made a living mining coal, which usually was the only income for the family. For many local people, mining seems to run in the family. Being such a small community, the people of Buffalo Creek had always been very close. Many even considered their neighbors to be “like one big family”. Children would grow up together, adults would help each other in times of need, and neighbors could easily sense when something seemed to be off or wrong.
Unfortunately, on the morning of February 26, 1972, everything had quickly changed for this community. The Buffalo Mining Company had been storing their waste in a hollow. About 132 million gallons of thick liquid waste had been stored. On February 26, at about eight in the morning, the impoundment gave away and the waste began to rush through the village. Homes were destroyed and many loved people, both old and young, had been killed. For a surviver, walking the streets after the disaster was extremely hard. Many had found the dead bodies of their neighbors, typically buried by debris or barely recognizable after being battered by the broken objects in the waste. After this day, things never went back to normal for the town and the people continued to suffer deeply.
The disaster of Buffalo Creek affected the whole community greatly in ways that can be seen through both the conflict and solidarity perspectives. The conflict perspective originated from Karl Marx and states that there are forces in a society that promote change and conflict. In the Buffalo Creek scenario, the disaster acted as a force for change. The conflict and change began when the disaster began. People watched their homes being destroyed or families being broken and were not able to do anything to help. After that day, the struggles continued.
As a result of the disaster, people started to distance themselves from the ones they once considered family. No one was interested in stopping to have a conversation or checking up on others when things seemed off. The children that previously spent a majority of their time together were distanced by their worried parents. Many had trouble sleeping, others forced their kids to pack an away bag before they went to bed in case of the disaster repeating. On top of all of that, many developed depression or anxiety. “Now, myself, there was months and months and months where I felt I was just sitting around waiting to die. That’s the way I felt. I thought there’s nothing to live for, and at that time I just didn’t care, either. Everything’s changed. Nothing’s the same.” (Erikson 2017, p. 51)
Others moved away from Buffalo Grove and felt that they could not handle going back and revisiting past memories. People who lived through the disaster can never forget it, no matter how hard they tried. “The flood in its own way destroyed my past in the mental sense. I knew every- body in the area. That’s where I lived. That’s what I called home. And I can’t go back there anymore. I cant even think of it. I have no past.” (Erikson 2017, p. 62)
One of the ideas that Karl Marx worked on is alienation. Alienation can sometimes be described as isolation and misery resulting from powerlessness. In the Buffalo Creek community, alienation can be seen through the damages done by the disaster. People felt a lack of power when the disaster happened and it still affects them today through the misery they experience daily and the isolation from people they once called family. The solidarity perspective was studied by Émile Durkheim. The solidarity perspective looks at the ties that hold a society together.
For the Buffalo Creek community, there were specific norms that kept the society whole in the aftermath of the disaster. In the community, nearly everyone struggled with the same emotions after February 26, 1972. People all were deeply saddened by the lost of so many people and homes.
The majority of the community also began to hate or fear storms. It became a social norm to not casually mention bad weather that was soon to be arriving. People also passed on their phobia of storms and feelings about the disaster to new generations. “The moral of this sad story is that people are connected to one another by ties they are only vaguely aware of, if at all. Those ties become most apparent, sometimes, when they are ruptured by the force of some disaster” (Erikson 2017, p. 62).
The aftermath of the disaster represents a good example of collective consciousness. Collective consciousness is the idea that many of our beliefs and feelings are shared with our communities. The anxiety and depression caused by the disaster is shared by many as well as the fear of storms that developed from living through the terrible event. As this paper demonstrates, the disaster in Buffalo Creek affected the town in significant ways that can be seen through both the conflict and solidarity perspectives. People distanced themselves from previously close neighbors, struggled with inner issues, and developed a new fear or hatred. The whole Buffalo Creek society suffered greatly, which influenced their social norms to change quickly and drastically.