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The World They Lost

The World They Lost: How the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood Disaster Forever Changed Appalachia

A Book Proposal by Tom Nugent

Forty years ago next year (on Feb. 26, 1972), the collapse of a huge coal-waste dam at the top of Buffalo Creek Hollow triggered a massive flood that killed 125 people, destroyed a dozen small towns, left more than 4,000 people homeless – and permanently altered the physical and social landscape of this once bucolic valley in southwestern West Virginia.

Tom Nugent told the story of the disaster in Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a widely praised non-fiction book that recounted – hour by hour and day by day – the harrowing details of one of the worst disasters in American industrial history.

The book was reviewed everywhere (including the front of the Washington Post-Chicago Tribune supplement, Book World), and it would be the only on-the-scene book of investigative journalism to emerge from the disaster.  Death at Buffalo Creek eventually  won for its author a $12,000 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Next February 26th will mark the 40th anniversary of the disaster.

That rapidly approaching anniversary raises a number of urgent questions.  For starters: What happened to the thousands of people who once lived along the twisting, 16-mile-long Buffalo Creek, and what became of their descendants?

What became of the communities – small but thriving mining towns such as Lorado, Lundale and Braeholm – that once sent their children to public schools up and down the hollow?  What happened to the infrastructure . . . the roads, electricity, water, sewer, schools and a major regional hospital that was wiped out by the killer flood of ’72?

All too often in American journalism, reporters hurry from one story to the next – without ever looking back to see what became of events that were once front-page . . . . and without ever attempting to measure the long-term social impact of disasters such as the one that took place in Appalachia in 1972.

In order to measure that impact, the author of Death at Buffalo Creek will soon be returning to the mountains of Southern Appalachia to find out exactly what happened to the hundreds of people whose worlds were shattered forever on February 26, 1972.

The World They Lost: How the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster Forever Changed Southern Appalachia will tell the story of how thousands of people were permanently affected by the killer flood.

The book will describe – in gripping narrative detail – what happened in later years to the government officials who allowed an unlicensed, unregulated coal-waste dam to kill 125 people, along with the coal company officials who were in charge of protecting the citizens of Buffalo Creek and failed to do it.

But most of all, this book will trace the histories of those who perished and those who lost the people they loved on Feb. 26, 1972.

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