Monday, October 10, 2011

What Clinchport, Virginia, Can Teach Us About Disasters

For its size Clinchport, Virginia, has spent a lot of time in the news. In the nineteenth century, before railroads out-competed riverboats as shipping systems, the oldest port town on the Clinch River was an active, even prosperous community (read a native writer's memoir here). In 1977 downtown Clinchport spent Spring Break Week under water. By 1980 Clinchport's population was below 100, and in the early 1990s Clinchport made news by electing the youngest mayor in the United States (all the other voters had had their turns to be mayor). Currently, Clinchport's attractions are well publicized on the Internet as a nature park, hiking, fishing, camping, and resort area.

The town still exists, but visitors to the park may not recognize it. Downtown buildings that had been underwater during the flood were not rebuilt or replaced. A few of the nicer houses built on the hills above the downtown section can still be seen from the streets that have become hiking and bike trails. Stores that were closer to the docks than to downtown Clinchport still exist as convenience stores. The majority of Clinchport's residents no longer live in what used to be the town proper.

Most adults in Scott County remember the flood well. What I remember best was the element of surprise. There'd been a lot of snow that winter; my brother and I had been able to go to school only one day in the month of January. To make up all those snow days, spring break had been cancelled. Easter Sunday started out sunny and warm, and a sympathetic radio personality advised us students to celebrate our one and only day of vacation with a picnic.

However, any lunch picnics anyone might have started would have been broken up by a sudden, heavy thunderstorm. By suppertime the whole county was soaked, the rain was pouring down, and the radio was reporting that we wouldn't have to go to school on Monday after all. Clinchport was being evacuated, and Gate City's schools had been commandeered for emergency shelters. We had a full week of spring break; there was some suspense as to whether enough evacuees would be able to go home by Sunday night to allow school to open next Monday, but they were and it did.

Of course, Clinchporters' memories are more dramatic than that. Some of the older residents had their own ideas about being evacuated. Residents of the houses on the hills thought they would be able to shelter residents of the downtown area, as usual, for the usual few hours. As water continued to rise, the town's affluent families realized they had a problem. Helicopters were dispatched to rescue the residents of more and less posh houses alike. At least one man refused to be rescued and camped on his roof for two days, until his attic was above water.

It was a messy, traumatic year. Federal disaster funds were allocated to Clinchport, but only a few families chose to stay in their houses. The school, church, and post office, along with several houses and stores, were dismantled; reusable furniture and building materials were sold. (Later my brother helped relatives rebuild a house in our neighborhood using the remains of a house from downtown Clinchport, and we've since located other Clinchport souvenirs scattered around Scott County.)

Disaster funds were used to help downtown dwellers relocate. Several moved to Gate City, about ten miles uphill on the east, or Big Stone Gap, about twenty miles uphill on the west. Older people from Clinchport formed the majority of the first residents of a new retirement community, called Thomas Village, built outside Duffield. By 1980, Clinchport had an odd hollowed look, with the downtown district growing up in trees...but the actual residents were doing well.

The physical effects of the Clinchport Flood were proportionate to the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. However, the differences in the way those physical effects affected the populations were immense. Nobody died in the Clinchport Flood. No diseases broke out in the shelters, nor did evacuees become violent. Evacuees had plenty to complain about at the time and plenty of stories to tell afterward, but the damage they suffered was almost entirely financial. Most of them either died old, or are still alive today.

The property damage done by the Clinchport Flood was comparable in proportion to the damage done by other heavily publicized disasters, such as the attack on New York City on September 11, 2001. Not only is it possible to compare an event in which nobody was killed to an event in which thousands of people died; it may be useful.

Floods have similar effects everywhere, but a flood in a densely populated area is deadlier than a flood in a sparsely populated area. Like residents of New Orleans, residents of Clinchport waited until water started seeping in around their front doors to leave their homes...and residents of Clinchport had time to get out, too, because there were few enough people in Clinchport that if they'd all driven away at once, even on their two-lane access roads, they would hardly have created a significant traffic jam.

Flood water is never clean, but pollution is more deadly in a heavily populated area than it is in a sparsely populated area. Fewer chemicals leaked into the water during the Clinchport Flood than during floods in other places. Fewer animals drowned, and no humans drowned. After the Clinchport Flood, no plagues broke out, and materials could be salvaged...even reused in houses that are still livable today.

Living in a "shelter" is so stressful, physically and emotionally, that I personally try to protect even dogs from having that experience. It was less disastrous for evacuees from Clinchport than for some survivors, though, possibly because the Clinchporters knew one another personally. Not all of them were friends; homogenous and middle-class as the group was, Clinchport had its political divisions. All residents were, however, well enough acquainted that crowding into shelters kept them rigidly polite rather than producing violence.

Although obviously they hadn't, and couldn't have, prepared for "The" Clinchport Flood, Clinchport residents were aware that living close to a river means living with some risk of floods. They were not living or storing expensive book collections in basements. All of them had their own evacuation plans, even if those plans did not foresee a need to get completely outside the corporate limits of Clinchport, or anticipate that flood water would slosh up over the U.S. highway that bypassed the downtown area. The thought, "Federal aid is supposed to compensate us for any inconvenience produced by living near the river," did not exist in Clinchport.

Nor was that thought pattern observed in Gate City, Duffield, or Big Stone Gap. Nobody anticipated that the whole town of Clinchport would be camping in our public buildings for a week, but nobody thought twice about opening the public buildings. Or the churches; Clinchport's primary school students finished the year in a church in Gate City, from which they walked to the cafeteria in Gate City's elementary school to eat lunch. Stores and families donated food. The thought pattern observed was, "Bureaucratic plans to help people are all very well, if and when they can be activated, but the Bible tells me to feed and shelter my own neighbors, if necessary, without waiting for a bureaucracy to move."

This article was written during 2010, a year of disasters. Record snows, record freezes, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, caved-in mines, oil spills, the Nashville Flood. Yes, our local newspapers described the situation in Nashville by comparing it with Clinchport. Yes, these comparisons motivated residents of Scott County to donate supplies for the shelters in Nashville. But some things have changed...when a foreign-owned oil well started fouling the Gulf of Mexico, instead of blaming the individuals who had contributed directly to the mess, people immediately began dumping blame on the President of the United States. Several people in Clinchport had voted against President Carter, but I don't recall ever hearing anyone blame him for the flood.