Winds of Change Newsletter, August 2009 See sidebar for table of contents
Matewan, West Virginia
May 12, 2009
Driving narrow, switchback roads that wind through the southern West Virginia coalfields, Im snapped out of my reverie as I pass by a mountain whose top has been ripped off by the coal mine owners who drive the local economy. The sight is disturbing in the magnitude of destruction and ugliness: fallen trees lie everywhere; rivulets of water are cascading in every direction down the mountainside; small rivers of mud ooze in every direction.
Dominating the scene is a huge bare rock mound that is protruding through the green canopy, as shocking as coming upon an accident victim lying bloody and broken along the highway.
Sid Two Gun Hatfield gained notoriety and hero status among miners for facing down a dozen Baldwin-Felts detectives sent by the Stone Mountain Coal Company on May 19, 1920 to evict the recently unionized miners from their company owned homes. Hatfield, Mayor Cabel Testerman, and several miners with pistols hidden in their coats confronted the detectives at the Norfolk-Western railroad depot as they prepared to leave town. No one knows for sure who fired the first shot, but when the smoke cleared eleven men lay dead including the mayor, a young unarmed bystander and seven detectives.
Im having these strange thoughts about events that occurred almost 90 years ago while traveling to this small Mingo county community to assist the people who have been recently affected by a flood that raged though here three days ago. Floods and coal mining, especially the modern version where the entire top of a mountain is ripped off and discarded into the streams and valleys below in order to expose the coal seam, are believed by many, including the miners, to be intimately connected.
Flood waters have repeatedly visited these mountain people who have lived here for decades. Each one seems worse than the one before.
Wanda Metz (not her real name) believes this is the worst so far. Im standing in the driveway of her flooded home talking to her and her teenage daughter while trying to keep their Jack Russell Terriers muddy paws off my pants.
Something catches my eye and I look down at a soggy high school yearbook lying by the porch. Its open to a picture of a sweet looking young couple with dated hairdos. Thats my husband and me, Wanda says. It was about all that I could save from our personal things. She looks away and quickly adds, But it could have been worse. No one got hurt and material things can be replaced.
Its an attitude I will see repeated many times in the days ahead. These resilient people are used to adversity, and the calamities, manmade and natural, that are visited upon them are confronted with a mixture of fatalism and a determination to set the world right again. The words self pity dont seem be part of their vocabulary.
Theyre used to handling things themselves and are reluctant to accept help, especially from outsiders. One challenge in disaster response in some areas is getting people to accept assistance. Take it down the road to them folks that need it more than we do, is a common refrain heard from even those who lost a lot.
Down the road is Route 52, a winding, badly damaged highway that parallels the Guyandotte River, the source of the wild waters that rampaged through the small town of Gilbert, WV. on May 9th. Unlike Matewan, which was spared from flooding--although its nearby communities werent--Gilbert was hit hard. Many of the small businesses have been severely damaged as well as much of the infrastructure of the area. Both the towns high school and elementary schools were badly damaged by muddy, swollen water.
Our team spots a woman, maybe in her 70s, dragging items out of her small gift shop along the highway placing them carefully in the sun to dry. We decide to stop and talk even though we are only supposed to assist people whose primary homes were affected.
Macie Elders tells us she has had the shop open only four years and that she doesnt have flood insurance. It was too expensive, she says, shaking her head. Now, weve lost so much merchandise I dont know what well do.
In spite of our agencys rules, we unload some drinking water and cleaning supplies from the vehicle we have packed to the roof with donated items. She thanks us and returns to the only thing she can do which is trying her best to get life back to normal.
All along Route 52, up to the base of Horse Pen Mountain eight miles north of Gilbert are homes damaged or destroyed by the flood. People point out that the flooding not only came from the rising waters of the river behind their homes, but also from the swollen rivulets and streams cascading down the steep mountain slopes.
They show us where a neighbors excavation for a home site or driveway had allowed the raging waters to be directed at their homes and out buildings.
But what we hear most frequently is the opinion--in spite of coal friendly state government conducted studies,--that the brutal extraction methods being used by the coal companies is mostly to blame for these disasters that are becoming more and more commonplace.
It stands to reason, says one retired worker injured in a mine accident years ago, that when you strip away all of the trees that hold the soil in place and ruin the streams that carry the water away youre going to have this. Hes pointing to the buckled, washed out road in front of his house and goes on to explain that he didnt always feel this way and was opposed to people who did until a succession of floods convinced him otherwise.
After a week of talking to hundreds of people in and around their damaged and sometimes ruined homes, watching both men and women cry as they describe their irreplaceable losseshomemade Christmas ornaments made by their children when they were youngIm ready for a lighter place, if just for awhile.
It comes in the form of a young mother, Janie Hatfield, who I meet a day before departing for home. Ive been directed to her home by a neighbor who assures us that flooding had occurred there.
As the nurse who is my partner and I approached the house, Janie comes from around an out building carrying a shotgun clutched close to her breast.
We both shoot our hands straight up in an attempt to be funny by saying dont shoot. But as we look more carefully we see she isnt smiling but instead has tears in her eyes.
What happened, we ask.
Janie explains that the morning after the flood her husband went out at first light to survey the damage. One of the first things he saw was the chicken coop of their solitary hen, Lucy, nearly totally submerged in water. Lucy had been a present a year ago last Easter for their five year old son and he had become quite attached to her. Dad had waded out in waist deep water and rescued Lucy and laid her out on a chair to dry so that his son would stop crying.
We ask her why shes got the shotgun.
She says that Lucy did, in fact, dry outalthough no one expected her to live. Unfortunately, she flew into the dogs pen and Janie had to put her out of her misery with the shotgun when she found what was left of her a while later.
The image of the wife blasting the poor hapless chicken that the husband so valiantly rescued is difficult to suppress and I dont know whether to laugh or cry.