Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Appalachia (Part I): Disasters, man-made and otherwise

So much news and commentary about Appalachia has appeared in the news in recent months that I thought I would just make the region--not a particular phenomenon within the region--the topic of a series of blog posts, the first on man-made and natural disasters, specifically water contamination and wildfire.

  In mid-November, Ron Rash wrote "Appalachia's Sacrifice," an op-ed lamenting the lack of media attention to widespread water contamination in southeastern Kentucky--"contamination from mining runoff, industrial waste, worn-out pipes, a whole confluence of causes."  Rash, who teaches Appalachian studies at Western Caroline University, notes that, though this problem as endured for at least a decade, it has not drawn the attention that the Flint, Michigan water contamination problem has.

In other sobering news out of Appalachia, a massive wildfire blazed through Gatlinburg, Tennessee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in late November. Fourteen people died in the fire, and some 1000 structures were destroyed in and around the town, which is heavily dependent on tourism.  Nearby Pigeon Forge suffered no fire damage, but its tourism-reliant economy is also at risk as a consequence of the fire if visitors are deterred from coming to the region.  Two teenagers have been charged with arson.

Amidst coverage of the fire, Jason Howard, who teaches writing and Appalachian studies at Berea College in Kentucky, published an op-ed titled "Appalachia Burning." In it, he makes several points, most prominently one similar to that made by Rash: if this tragedy were unfolding (or had long ago unfolded, in the case of the water contamination) in a place other than a "flyover" state, it would be getting much more prominent media coverage.  (I made a similar point in this blog post in 2015 about wildfires in northern California).  Howard writes:
Unfortunately, this lack of attention is all too familiar to the residents of Appalachia, who have historically been ignored or misrepresented in the national consciousness. News coverage has focused on economic poverty rather than cultural riches, a handful of feuds rather than strong family ties.
He acknowledges, too, the hateful stereotypes of Appalachians that are drawn to the surface by events like the Gatlinburg fire:  
That the moonshine stills of the poor, ignorant hillbillies have accidentally set the mountains ablaze, or that Tennesseans, who largely voted for Mr. Trump, are getting their just deserts.
But Howard's post is about more than the fire, it's about an issue that our nation is increasingly interested in if only because it seems to be slipping away:  the American dream
For my parents and countless others who had grown up poor in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, a visit to Gatlinburg was a treat — a place to enjoy the natural wonder of the Smoky Mountains, to splurge on a meal at the Howard Johnson, or to visit Goldrush Junction, a small-scale attraction that was renamed Silver Dollar City and ultimately transformed into Dollywood. A trip to Gatlinburg meant that things were looking up, that they themselves were on their way up — that a place at the table of the American middle class was within their grasp.
And this brings me back to Rash's piece.  He, too, situates his comments about how we overlook Appalachia in broader themes of the moment:  
Appalachia has always given more to America than it has received, especially its natural resources and, in times of war, its sons and daughters. A recent example of this inequity is the Chapter 11 filings of several major coal companies, legal maneuverings that may allow them to evade the millions needed to clean up the devastation they’ve left behind.
As my friend and fellow Appalachian writer Jeff Biggers once told an audience, when you turn on a light switch, think about the people who have risked their lives in mines to make that electricity possible. ... It is hard to argue with Daile Boulis, a resident of Loudendale, W.Va., who lamented, in an interview with Blue Ridge Outdoors, that “the rest of the country treats us like we’re the cost of doing business in America.”
But Rash does leave us on a hopeful note--one about racial conciliation.  After noting that southeastern Kentucky is mostly white and Flint is mostly black and that both are united in misery, he concludes:
Perhaps safe drinking water can be one of the first issues around which we can begin to reunify our fragmented nation.
Under Trump, sadly, I have less hope than ever.  He cares for the wellbeing of neither blacks nor whites, and has loaded his cabinet with folks of similar disposition.  

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