CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Southern West Virginia and the Aftermath of Terrorism

(10/03/2001)

By Jack Cawthon

"It was then when I looked into a father's face wrought with despair, choking back tears as he knelt on the concrete floor of the school gym. Reposing on an army surplus litter was the…lifeless body of his 8-year-old son." New York City, September 11? No, Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, February 1972. With powerful words and overpowering emotion Bob Weaver wrote his column of August 31. If you haven't read it you can find it here under "SUNNY CAL JOURNAL-Buffalo Creek-Power and Politics."

The disaster which struck Buffalo Creek resulted from the collapse of a coal company impoundment, not from an act of a terrorist, unless the neglect which led up to it falls under its own definition of terrorism.

In the almost 30 years since that wall of water rushed down a narrow holler the event has been erased from the minds of most people, with the exception of those like the grief-stricken father who only by his own death can ever remove the horror of that terrible tragedy.

With "only" 118 dead this disaster is far surpassed by the more than 5,000 dead in the World Trade Center attacks. Yet, the attention of the nation is focused on New York, and it will linger on in our national conscience. We will have burned into our minds those video frames of the plane striking and the flames billowing, the rubble and the search for survivors, but we carry no such lasting images to remind us of Buffalo Creek and other recurring nightmares of a lesser nature but of equal impact to the people involved which have beset our own state. We need people such as Bob Weaver to remind us. His words, which circulate far less easily than those of the electronic medium, can nevertheless paint a picture in our minds surpassing the zoom-in lens with far less intrusion to those suffering loss.

There are other words by another writer which should claim our attention: "You've had a bacterial infection in your lungs for two and a half months and the doctors can't cure it and you can't breathe."

"Your 7-year-old son has recurring nightmares so terrible he can't express them with words. Only crayons." Again, not New York City, but southern West Virginia and a story written by Tara Tuckwiller in the Sunday (Sept. 30) Charleston Gazette-Mail. She wrote about the effects of the flooding which hit southern West Virginia on July 8 of this year. More lives lost, more homes swept away.

Again, this was not an act of terrorism unless we consider an Act of God some sort of terror for its own Divine reasons. And often what is attributed to Divine Will is only the act of a mere human sitting in the operator's seat of a bulldozer doing the work of Mammon instead of God. Whatever the reason, it is still pure terror for those who have lost everything in its aftermath.

Will the victims in West Virginia be forgotten and overlooked by the greater national events of the past few days? Probably so. After all, our own politicians who manage the state's resources often tend to forget, perhaps conveniently so.

There are tremendous drives under way to raise money for those who suffered losses in New York and elsewhere. I don't want to appear callous in regard to those efforts, but many, if not most of the people affected there have benefits already in place. The police and firemen have protective plans to generously provide for their survivors and many of those who were killed in the Towers and the Pentagon were professionals with their own insurance and pension plans. In addition, there will be government funds of huge proportions. Money can never replace lives, but it can make life easier for those left behind.

What do the people of southern West Virginia have? According to Tuckwiller, "Thanks to the government, most of the hundreds of flood victims at least have a roof over their heads before winter sets in. Thanks to the ongoing kindness of strangers, the victims have food and clothing and even a few toys for the children."

The government has provided trailers for shelter but the people are expected to find permanent housing on their own. The few houses available have been jacked up in price, such as a three-bedroom one with no yard going for $79,000.

The government FEMA program provides low-interest loans but it takes considerable time for the loan process and many sellers don't want to wait.

"The people in Rainbow Court (a mobile home encampment) have 18 months to find a new place to live. They won't be kicked out if they don't have anyplace to go, but a FEMA representative will check in from time to time to see what progress they're making," Tuckwiller writes.

We see fund-raising efforts by organizations and celebrities to help the victims in New York because this carnage has become a national issue of pride and of patriotism. The poor people of southern West Virginia suffer mostly in silence as there is no widespread attention focused on their plight.

Social workers and others who work with the homeless and downtrodden find that they are overrun with "volunteers" each Christmas day as many well-to-do people pour in to donate their services. The next day, and the remainder of the year, they are gone. They have assuaged their guilt or appeased their minds by giving for one special day. Many of the funds donated for the national tragedy will come from people who need this cleansing of the soul.

However, there is plenty of guilt to share from the disasters which have struck West Virginia. The words of Bob Weaver and Tara Tuckwiller will reach many people, but they won't gain the attention that the continual coverage of two 110-story Towers falling into rubble provides.

By all means help New York and the others who have suffered, but let's not ever forget our own victims in West Virginia. Stamping out national terrorism will not bring with it peace and tranquility in the hills and hollers; our terrors, like the poor they assail, will always be with us.

Tuckwiller describes a little boy who keeps his toys piled up in a corner of the closet, stacked one on top of the other. When asked why, he replies, "So if it floods, I'm not going to lose all my toys again."


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