The Human Meaning of Total Disaster

The Buffalo Creek Experience
  • Robert Jay Lifton
  • Eric Olson
Part of the The Springer Series on Stress and Coping book series (SSSO)


In late 1972, we were asked by lawyers from the Washington, D.C., firm of Arnold and Porter to consult on the psychological effects of the Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, flood disaster. At that time a case claiming damages for “psychic impairment” was being prepared on behalf of more than 600 people who had survived the February 1972 flood. The flood resulted from massive corporate negligence in the form of dumping coal waste in a mountain stream in a manner that created an artificial dam, resulting in increasingly dangerous water pressure behind it. After several days of rain the dam gave way, and a massive, moving wall of “black water” (containing the coal waste), more than 30 feet high, roared through the narrow creek hollow, devastating the mining hamlets along the 17-mile valley. In less than an hour the water reached the foot of the hollow at Man, West Virginia, and in that time 125 people were killed and nearly 5,000 made homeless.


Natural Disaster Flood Disaster Death Anxiety Coal Waste Tornado Warning 
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  1. 1.
    See Kai T. Erikson, Loss of communality at Buffalo Creek,and James L. Titchener and Frederic T. Kapp, Family and character change in Buffalo Creek,both presented at the American Psychiatric Association meetings, Anaheim, California, in May 1975, at a symposium, “Disaster at Buffalo Creek: Studies of 160 Families,” jointly sponsored with the American Psychoanalytic Association. We worked closely with Erikson and Titchener throughout.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Lifton, R. J. Death in life. New York: Random House, 1968.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1976

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert Jay Lifton
    • 1
  • Eric Olson
    • 2
  1. 1.John Jay CollegeCity University of New YorkNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.StockholmSweden

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