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Madison Monday

Madison Monday: On floods and the sociology of disaster

By April 25, 20113 Comments

Well, that’s a kind of a scary title for a blog post, so let me assure you first of all, that there’s no real disaster in Madison. The river is up, and certainly above flood level, and may reach a mark that would be on the list of top 15 highest readings. Vaughn Drive, the street in Madison that runs parallel and closest to the river, is closed all the way through town. The dog park is under water, and the lawn behind Lanier Mansion again. Down river in Louisville, Waterfront Park is under water, and the bad news is, there’s more rain in the forecast.

As I was driving through town today, looking down towards the river where all the north/south streets are closed before you get to the water, I had the sinking kind of feeling you get looking at a large body of water that is flowing in places where it normally is not. It feels like an unpleasant lurch in your stomach, and a bit like someone you thought was a good friend has suddenly started to just not act right. Like the river, so congenial in good times, has turned on us all.

This feeling doesn’t begin to compare to the trauma and despair suffered by the residents of Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, in February of 1972. On February 26th, an impoundment built by one of the mining companies to hold back almost 132,000,000 gallons of water burst, unleashing a flood on the communities along Buffalo Creek that crested over 30 ft. high and killed 125 people.

The dog park, underwater

Everything In Its Path is a book by Kai T. Erikson which details both the psychological and sociological effects of that disaster. It seems like much of the best sociology is done when someone comes to a sociologist with a need, a question that has to be answered. For Willam H. Whyte, it was, “Why should companies be required to provide some public space in New York City when they build a tall building, and what should those public spaces be like?” For Erikson, a group of lawyers suing the coal company who built the impoundments that burst needed hard data on the effects of the disaster on the residents up and down Buffalo Creek. And so he began interviewing them.

Like Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, the book that resulted is brilliant sociology. Erikson details how the people of Buffalo Creek suffered psychologica trauma, but also the destruction of their community, and that the two went hand in hand. No one felt like they were the same person anymore, and this was true in part because the actual emotional, social and physical space of their community had been destroyed.

Here’s how one resident along Buffalo Creek described what they had in their community before the flood:

If you had problems, you wouldn’t even have to mention it. People just know what to do. They’d just pitch in and help. Everyone was concerned about everyone else.

And another:

Here, if you have a neighbor, it’s somebody that 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.

After the flood, residents said about their community:

It is almost like a ghost town now.

Some reason or other, it’s not the same. Seems like it’s frozen.

It’s like a graveyard, that’s what. A cemetery.

There is a whole subfield in sociology that studies disasters, their causes and their effects. So for example, the Challenger shuttle explosion has partly social causes in that NASA scientists became trapped in group think, reaffirming each other’s conclusions with disastrous consequences. What this research has to contribute is a sociological insight into disaster. Yes, in the case of Buffalo Creek, individuals were suffering from deep, psychological trauma. But this trauma became difficult and for many, almost impossible to recover from because they had also lost the fabric of their community. The loss of this social fabric of their lives was almost like a second tragedy.

The best insights that sociology brings to the world involve this exact level. Yes, a disaster causes psychological trauma to us as individuals. But we are also deeply social creatures, and the loss of community can be devastating as well. Thankfully, in Madison today we’re okay, and even seeing some sunshine before it starts raining again. Here’s hoping the river will become a bit less expansive soon.


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