The 40th anniversary of Buffalo Creek kicked up all kinds of flashbacks.
One of them was a glint of sunlight on a wire, stretched across the valley.
I did not see the glint; fortunately, the helicopter pilot did.
The official total of dead from the flash flood in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, on Feb. 26, 1972, was 125, but it almost became higher.
The helicopter episode came when somebody in authority offered The New York Times a place on an Army helicopter that was doing reconnaissance in the long narrow valley. As a reporter, you always accept these offers.
I had been in helicopters before, but they always had doors and stuff. This one, as I recall, had a chain or belt stretched across a portal. I was strapped into my seat, but my inner core had the sensation of dangling out.
It was eerie enough, trying to adjust to pickup trucks lying in creek beds, mobile homes stretched across roadways, lowlands flattened as if by a giant bulldozer, and knots of rescue workers, poking in the flotsam at every bend of the river. Not much was moving.
We were heading uphill, where the coal company had placed an earthen dam to catch all the water and junk from the mine.
Suddenly, I heard the pilot mutter something as he made an evasive veer, straight up, as I recall. We came to understand that he had spotted an electric or telephone line stretched across the valley.
Forty years later, I have no idea how close we came. All I remember is the mixture of gravity and fear in my stomach. Whenever I think of Buffalo Creek, that little episode comes to mind.
* * *
The pistol adventure happened a few days later, when the Times home office asked me to check for more earthen dams in the region. I caught up with Ken Murray from Tri-Cities, who remains one of the great photographers of Appalachia.
Ken and I had met right after the mine blew up at Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. We both went to the first funeral -- the shot man who had been using outdoor explosives indoors, during weather when methane gas is at its most explosive.
We became a unit on subsequent assignments, with Ken contributing far more than this city boy ever could. This was when I learned to rely upon all the great photographers I have worked with.
Ken and I drove around, looking for likely topography that might harbor an earthen dam. We were halfway up a hillside when the company guards caught up with us, clearly trespassing. I won’t say they were aiming their pistols at us, but they let us see the pistols.
Ken and I were well aware that in 1967, the Canadian filmmaker, Hugh O’Connor, had been blown away after walking onto somebody’s property in rural Kentucky while making a documentary. My fellow journalists always told me that story – I think, to get a rise out of me, but they were surely doing me a favor, too.
(The only time I ever had a gun actually pointed at me was by a very nervous young trooper wielding a nasty-looking shotgun during a riot in Baton Rouge in that same era. The trooper told me to produce my identification and I talked him through the process of my rummaging around in my pockets, and was he all right with that? I still do that whenever an officer tells me to produce my wallet. Nothing like play-by-play to calm testy officers with weapons.)
Anyway, the coal guards interrogated us, until their boss arrived. As it happened , Ken and I knew the man from an earlier story we had done. He shook his head and said he was very disappointed in us.
Meanwhile, Ken whispered, “Let’s get down to the state road; that’s public property.” We started putting one foot after another, telling our story walking, until we reached the highway. I told the foreman I had made a terrible mistake and would never get lost like that again, and we drove off. Didn’t find any earthen dams that day. Just guessing they’re still up there, waiting for the next hundred-year-rain in a week or two.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.