The Audacity of Engaging the Public

‘The People Speak’ Forum is essential for future disaster planning in West Virginia

SWEET SPRINGS, W.Va. — On April 24, I will be joining with other folks here to hold a public forum called “The People Speak: Early Lessons from the Pandemic.” The purpose of this gathering is to conduct a citizen and community review of lessons learned to date from the pandemic and publish the comments and findings for the public, public health officials, emergency response officials, first responders, and first receivers — such as hospitals and nursing homes — to add to their own reviews. 

The question is, why are we doing it? This is not a rhetorical question, for many have asked that question. It’s fair. And to me, the answer is easy.

It’s the right thing to do. For at least three reasons:

  1. This first-hand information from the grassroots will inform policy makers.
  2. It is consistent with Appalachian folkways to tell stories, and it is healing as well.
  3. West Virginia has a long history of disasters; it is past time that the people who have been most impacted by those disasters be given a voice.

I’ll expand upon each of those in reverse order, so let’s begin with West Virginia’s history of preventing, responding to and recovering from disasters.

Aftermath of Buffalo Creek flood showing damage from above, February 1972. James Hagood Collection 2048 05

One of the most telling — and outrageous — examples as to what happens when the people most harmed are totally ignored by state officials is the Buffalo Creek disaster in 1972. In that disaster 125 West Virginians died when the Buffalo Creek Mining Company waste containment pond dam burst at the head of Buffalo Creek, releasing 135 million gallons of water, sludge and mud to form a 30-foot high wall of debris that rushed through the valley below. In addition to the dead, several thousand people were displaced and approximately 1,000 homes destroyed.

Five years later, Governor Arch Moore accepted a $1 million settlement from Pittston Coal Company, even though the state had sued for $100 million. Additionally, the disaster was preventable, for the state failed to honor its regulatory requirements at the disaster site. In short, this is just one example of where insult was literally added to injury (and death) by a governor with very misplaced priorities.

Additionally, in 1907, nearly 400 miners were killed at Monongah. Yet, more than 100 years later, nothing had changed. In 2010, 29 miners died at Upper Big Branch (UBB).

After that disaster, the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) offered blunt, unpleasant conclusions about UBB. Among the panel’s findings:

  1. The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
  2. These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
  3. Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
  4. Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.
Headline tells of the disaster at Monongah

That report, and the one following the Sago Mine Disaster in Upshur County in 2006, did include comments and insight from the families and communities impacted by these disasters. Yet, it is arguable that their heart-wrenching stories were simply set on a shelf. 

The list goes on. The derecho in 2012 and the 2016 West Virginia floods destroyed and changed lives forever. And flooding is not new in West Virginia. 1985 and 2001 brought some of the worst flooding to the Mountain State in modern times. In 1967, the Silver Bridge, connecting Point Pleasant to Gallipios, Ohio collapsed, killing 46 people.

That’s a short list. Several more mine disasters and floods have occured. In 1914, 172 men died in Eccles No. 5 and No. 6 mines in Raleigh County, the same county of the UBB disaster. In 1968, 78 men were permanently entombed following an explosion at the Farmington No. 9 mine.

With each disaster, comes unfathomable human pain and community suffering. There is no reason to believe that it will be any different with the pandemic. In fact, as an emergency preparedness professional, I am quite concerned. I know that the length of the pandemic, the number of deaths and our inability to appropriately grieve and mourn for those lost is causing untold emotional pain to millions of Americans and creating a volatile situation in our society .

We have already witnessed discord among our citizens as we have not seen in 50 years; or, perhaps 150 years. The state and our nation can’t survive such discord. So, the people must be heard. As one considers the state’s history of disasters, combined with the long and stressful nature of the pandemic, it is essential that people be given an opportunity to give voice to their experiences. So, that’s what we’re doing.

Destruction at Buffalo Creek Photo courtesy of West Virginia State Archives

Which is a good place to say also what we’re not doing. We are not conducting a review of the response by the State of West Virginia or local officials. We are not looking to point fingers; in fact, I think it is fair to say that West Virginia has done an outstanding job, comparatively speaking, in responding to the pandemic. So, we’ll let the professionals review their own agencies.

What we are doing is giving direct voice to the public. I’ve been involved in dozens of disaster reviews. Rarely, if ever, are citizens asked to share their experiences. That’s a shame, because policies that dictate disaster preparedness, response and recovery should definitely include plans for identifying and helping vulnerable populations.

The second reason for holding a citizen review is that it is an opportunity to tap into the value of storytelling in Appalachia. Storytelling is vital to processing events, especially those as life-changing as the pandemic has been. These stories will provide valuable insight, and most importantly, create stronger communities through the spoken word.

Finally, hearing from “the grassroots” is what Grassroots Appalachia is all about. It is not a new concept. In 2007, Paul Hawken wrote “Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice and Beauty to the World.” He called this movement “ … an instinctive, collective response to threat.” He asked, “Can it successfully address the issues that governments are failing to: energy, jobs, conservation, poverty and global warming?”

I believe the popular movements of the last few years answer that question in the affirmative. To ensure that remains the case, we must seek transparency in our assessments of disasters and potential threats. So, we must hear from the people. The people most affected by disasters have no reason to not be transparent. They have nothing to hide or be ashamed of.

They are full of wisdom. We ignore them at our own peril.

That is why we are holding, “The People Speak: Early Lessons from the Pandemic.”

We hope you’ll join us.

© Grassroots Appalachia LLC, 2021.

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