Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Buffalo Creek Disaster

A belated anniversary prayer for the victims of the February 26, 1972 flood at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia. The basic story and links to fuller versions can be found at Wiki. One reason why I remember it is that the book written by Gerald M. Stern, The Buffalo Creek Disaster, was required reading for all first year students at the University of Wisconsin Law School when I attended. This says a great deal about the ethos that prevailed among those who gave me my legal education, to whom I will always be most deeply grateful.

Stern was an attorney who represented the victims of the flood in the litigation that ensued. As recounted in his book, the results were sobering, to say the least. That sobering reality was something we all needed to face, in full light of the ideals of those who strove for justice in the case. While the book later came to be assigned in various law school courses around the country, largely for the procedural details in the book, it was given to us, not long after it was published, as a reminder of what the legal system should be pressed to achieve, even when at times it falls short. Sometimes the only real victory is in the truth that is brought forward as the lies and cover-up are exposed. Even when monetary damages are awarded, no amount can ever truly compensate for the lives and homes destroyed.

What brought the whole story to mind was last night's episode of N.C.I.S., which referenced the PTSD symptoms experienced by some of the survivors of the Buffalo Creek disaster (see 1976 study). How soon or easily we forget how events like this and Katrina can impact people for years to come, both in terms of the horror of the "natural" disasters and the slow, numbing horror of incomplete and inadequate post-disaster responses. Let us pray that the memories of these events will survive and prompt better planning to avoid the critical man-made elements of such disasters.

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