In the wake of the Buffalo Creek catastrophe, psychiatrists,
psychologists and pastors converged on the ravaged valley to help survivors
cope with the emotional havoc that follows enormous tragedy.
Like survivors of Hiroshima and the Nazi concentration camps, those spared
at Buffalo Creek battled depression, anxiety and other symptoms of a condition
known clinically as "disaster syndrome."
Charleston psychologist Robert D. Kerns, a professional services director
for the former state Department of Mental Health, supervised the care provided
by the Logan-Mingo County Mental Health Clinic. For months, he knocked
on doors in the makeshift trailer camps, encouraging survivors to discuss
their fears, anger and guilt.
The 72-year-old Pittsburgh native moved to West Virginia in 1961. Residing
for the winter in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., he reminisced about his Buffalo
Creek role during a recent telephone interview with Gazette reporter Sandy
"I WAS teaching a class in abnormal psychology at Morris Harvey College
at the time of the disaster. I was teaching about the disaster syndrome,
about people's reaction to disaster, the shock, the struggles. Despite
the fact that I was teaching all this, it never occurred to me to get off
my butt and go down there to see what I could do for those people.
"I guess I went through a kind of denial. It was like reading about
an earthquake somewhere. It was terrible, but it didn't apply to me. One
young man in my class was in the National Guard and was assigned to go
to Buffalo Creek. Still it didn't dawn on me that I ought to be there.
"Then, a local medical group in Logan called the mental health department
and said where in the hell are you. Dr. Mildred Bateman, our mental health
director, said we had to get to Logan. Suddenly, it hit me. I was teaching
what I was supposed to be doing.
"My first trip down there was toward the end of April, almost two
months later. The National Guard had pretty much gone, and you didn't need
a pass to get up into the valley, which you did early on.
"In some areas where bridges had washed out, you drove across creek
beds. You could drive all the way up to where the dam had been. It just
looked like a mountainside had fallen away. I can't imagine the volume
of water coming down into that narrow valley.
"Communities were totally wiped out. Areas where there had been housing
just didn't exist anymore. Water could wash out homes that were up on a
hill on one side, and houses on the other side down against the creek were
untouched, depending on the contour of the valley and the way the water
"One thing that bothered a whole lot of people was that they lived
on the side of the creek that didn't get touched. Water would come around
the bend, swish up and wipe out their neighbors across the street. There
was a lot of guilt: 'My neighbor got washed away, and I never got touched.'
"The trailer camps were already set up, and people had settled in.
Even though that's where they were going to be living for a while, they
simply would not look at those trailers as home. They wouldn't do anything
with them. I didn't see a window box with flowers. I didn't see any attempt
to personalize the trailers.
"There was a lot of concern because they had broken up the old communities.
Trailers were assigned according to who got signed up first. Communities
just didn't exist anymore. A trailer camp was not a community. Families
who had lived next to each other for generations, that kind of community
was broken up. People living in trailers no longer had that community support.
"Some people have a fear of mental health services, like if you go
for counseling, you are crazy. So one of the things we were doing was going
door to door, telling people we were there to help them. If they were having
problems eating or sleeping or dealing with their feelings about the flood,
we were there to talk about that. We were bringing the help to them. They
could come to the clinic office and do the same thing, but this wasn't
as threatening. Part of what we were doing was making it legitimate to
ask for help.
"From the very beginning, we were trying, number one, to get people
to know there was a resource for them, and number two, to get them started
talking about what had happened to them. Disaster victims will talk to
each other, but they won't complain to each other about what happened to
them, because there's always somebody worse.
"You can't complain about what God did to you when everybody else
has the same problem. 'I may feel bad. I'm not sleeping well, and I'm not
eating well, and I'm scared to death, and I have to run out constantly
to make sure the creek's not coming up, but I'm doing better than some
of my neighbors, so who do I complain to?'
"You'd knock on a door and say, 'I'm from the Logan mental health
project, and we're here to help you deal with this thing.' They'd say,
'Oh, we're getting along fine, but my neighbor across the way, he's having
a real problem.' We'd say, 'OK, we'll go talk to your neighbor. Are you
sure there's nothing you need help with?' 'No, no. we're fine.' But when
we'd start to leave, somebody would say, 'Of course, we're not sleeping
as well as we used to.' So we'd turn back and say, 'Tell us about that.'
And we'd start to talk.
"The wives, the women, would start talking about how they were feeling,
and the husband typically would say, 'Why don't you go get these people
a cup of coffee.' He would break in. He didn't want to have the women talking.
It was too threatening.
"Women were stuck at home. As part of the cultural picture at that
time, women in the Buffalo Creek valley were homemakers. Men got to go
back to work. They had their jobs to concentrate on, all kinds of things
to take them away from all the feelings that go along with this kind of
"They didn't want their wives talking about it, because they could
no longer deny that they were feeling frustrated, angry and frightened,
that they were having all the same problems. They could no longer keep
their feelings bottled up and under control. They could talk to their friends
at work about other things and continue to deny all the anxieties they
"A lot of people had nightmares, but the men wouldn't talk about them.
There's the cultural thing, that men are supposed to be able to tolerate
all kinds of stress. Actually, women tolerate it better, but men are supposed
to be able to, so men bottle it up and women talk about it.
"When the men would break in to offer us coffee, we'd say, 'There's
no need to bother with that. Tell us about the shoes sitting beside the
door.' 'Oh, yes. We keep them there so we can all run out of the water
starts to come up again.' We'd say, 'Well, tell me about that.' So we were
able, through persistence, to get them to tell us about things, about how
frightened they were when the water came down, how the rain was coming
down and they would keep driving up and down the road, up the hollow there
to make sure water wasn't raising too much.
"They were looking for the usual spring floods. They weren't that
concerned about the dam breaking. They would tell us how, every time it
would cloud up, they would put twigs on the bank so they could watch and
see if the water was rising. The catastrophe that occurred had nothing
to do with the creek rising. It had to do with the dam breaking and all
that water coming down at once. They had the fear that the same thing was
going to happen all over again, which wasn't even possible.
"People felt guilty, frightened and depressed. There was a pretty
large increase in alcoholism. There was a great deal of concern about unpaid
bills. They lost everything and had to rebuild and now they owed for the
brand new TV and the new refrigerator and all the rest. So there was a
lot of that kind of anxiety on top of everything else. In a sense, it was
healthy to worry about the real things.
"They were very angry about some of the stories they had read about
the mine shacks. Newspaper stories that talked about the ramshackle coal
company housing were devastating to them. The implication was, 'Yeah, these
people lost everything, but what they lost wasn't worth 10 cents anyway.'
The people would say, 'I built that house myself. Maybe it didn't look
like much on the outside, but it was great inside, and everything in there
was mine.' There was a great deal of pride in what they had.
"There is a very clear disaster syndrome, and the pattern of reaction
is very obvious from the beginning. There is the initial shock, then a
suggestibility stage. There is a period immediately after the initial shock
where people are very suggestible. They can be led to do all kinds of things,
because they are looking for someone to show them the way out. That's why
I've always contended that no one should sign an insurance settlement immediately
after a disaster.
"There is an anger phase where nothing anybody does is right, everybody's
screwing up. 'If they'd done things right, I wouldn't have lost my brother
and my sister and my house.' They were really angry when the company said
it was an act of God, because they knew it was an act of the company. In
that kind of community, people are very fundamental in their religion.
Nothing happens that God does not approve of, so you couldn't complain.
But because it was God's will doesn't necessarily mean man didn't have
something to do with it. Clearly, the company built the dam. Therefore,
the company was responsible. But the company was also paying them. They
couldn't focus their anger and say this is the so-and-so who took everything
away from me.
"People bring a lifetime of history to any situation. Some people
are better able to deal with disaster. Not everybody in the path of that
flood had a death in the immediate family, but they all faced the possibility
of death, and they were all powerless to do much, so they all had a reaction.
Some went through the steps in the syndrome more quickly and wound up relatively
unscathed. Others were profoundly involved and are still in treatment,
dealing with some of the things that happened to them during that flood.
"We went to one of the grade schools and had some of the children
draw some pictures right after the flood. At the end of the term, we had
them do it again. The early content would show water coming down the creek
and bodies floating in the water, frightening kinds of pictures, some literally
nothing more than stick figures floating upside down in the muddy water.
Later pictures were calmer. There wasn't nearly as much activity. The kids
really adjusted pretty well, a lot faster than the adults.
"Teachers, even teachers who themselves were going through some serious
depressed kinds of actions, did an excellent job of getting those kids
to deal with the aftermath, like just getting them to draw the pictures,
and role playing. Even the kids who had to wade through the water or were
carried were able to talk about how they felt and get it out of their systems.
"We helped people by just allowing them to talk. For those who needed
more, we set up the office and had staff come down from Huntington State
Hospital on a volunteer basis. We were able to provide medication where
appropriate and various types of consultations, but for the most part,
what we did was simply give them the opportunity to talk it out.
"Some of the things that went on during that project wound up being
part of my class presentation. It helped me both as a teacher and as a
clinician. For one thing, that was the last time I let a disaster pass
without doing something the very next morning. As soon as I hear about
a flood, I'm yelling to someone to get somebody there.
"It certainly impressed on me the fact that people need to unload.
If you don't help them do that in a situation right after it occurs, they
are going to continue to have nightmares and the same feelings they had
at the time. It only gets buried deeper."