In the 1950s Centralia was a small town, like many others in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. But since the 1960s, it has been consumed, outwardly and inwardly by a fire that has inexorably spread in the abandoned mines beneath it. The earth smokes, subsides, and breathes poisonous gases. No less destructive has been the spread of dissension and enmity among the townspeople. The Real Disaster Above Ground tells the story of the fire and the tragic failure of all efforts to counter it.
This study of the Centralia fire represents the most thorough canvass of the documentary materials and the community that has appeared. The authors report on the futile efforts of residents to reach a common understanding of an underground threat that was not readily visible and invited multiple interpretations. They trace the hazard management strategies of government agencies that, ironically, all too often created additional threats to the welfare of Centralians. They report on the birth and demise of community organizations, each with its own solution to the problem and its diehard partisans. The final solution, now being put into effect, is to abandon the town and relocate its people.
Centralia's environmental disaster, the authors argue, is not a local or isolated phenomenon. It warns of the danger lurking in our own technology when safeguards fail and disaster management policy is not in place to respond to failure, as the examples of Chernobyl and Bhopal have clearly demonstrated.
The lessons in this study of the fate of a small town in Pennsylvania are indeed sobering. They should be pondered by a variety of social scientists and planners, by all those dealing with the behavior of people under stress and those responsible for the welfare of the public.