By Kirsten Larvick
In 1972 over a dozen coal towns along Buffalo Creek, a hollow in Logan County, West Virginia, were overcome with 132 million gallons of black waste water. The devastating flood produced a 30-foot swell, ravaging homes and landscapes, killing over 100 residents, injuring over 1,000 others and leaving more than 4,000 of its 5,000-population homeless.
Mimi Pickering’s documentary, Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (1975), explores the events leading up to the devastation as well as the aftermath, examining the relationship of the corporate coal industry and the government to the community that was both dependent upon and abused by these two entities.
The disaster was the result of breaks in three dams, which were owned, operated and maintained by Buffalo Creek-Pittston Coal Company, which initially claimed the catastrophe was “an act of God”, the flood a result of heavy rains. Further investigation revealed the dams’ poor construction and maintenance, and a lack of concern, despite significant warning signs of the dams’ fragility, by Pittston management as well as government inspectors. The burst occurred just days after a federal mine inspector declared the dam “satisfactory.”
The government appointed a commission for inquiry, made up of officials who may have been sympathetic to the coal industry, rather than a task force of nonpartisan appointments. After the United Mine Workers’ concerns fell on the deaf ears of the commission, the labor union formed its own body to conduct an independent investigation.
Most heart-breaking are the testimonials of the flood survivors captured in Pickering’s film, and the psychological effects on the individuals who were left trying to put their lives back together both financially and emotionally with very little meaningful assistance from Pittston Coal Company or the government. Pickering spent time in the community, asking survivors through a non-exploitive approach, to tell their first-person stories. She also confronted coal company front-men to explain their actions and blatantly unsympathetic responses.
Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man is a testament to organizing and community strength and the power of grassroots storytelling.
On December 3rd the NYWIFT Women’s Film Preservation Fund and UnionDocs will host a screening of Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, followed with a panel discussion with its filmmaker, Mimi Pickering (via Skype) and fellow artist/activist Sylvia Ryerson, moderated by labor rights activist, Michelle Miller (both in-person). Tickets and UnionDocs venue details can be found here: https://uniondocs.org/event/2017-12-03-resist-reform-repeat-buffalo-creek-flood-an-act-of-man/
The film is presented as part of WFPF and UnionDocs’ 10-part series, From the Vault: Women’s Advocacy on Film, in celebration of NYWIFT’s 40th anniversary. Read more about the series.
Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man is distributed by Appalshop (https://www.appalshop.org) a nonprofit for cultural organizing and place-based media, arts and education to document the life, celebrate the culture and voice the concerns of people living in Appalachia and rural America.