Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

As coal fades in West Virginia, drugs fill void

McDowell County, once the top producer of coal in the nation, now leads state in overdose deaths

West Virginia

Editor’s note: This is the last in a three-part series examining the impact of the coal industry on health, the environment and overall quality of life for the people of West Virginia. The first part looked at residents beginning to speak out in the aftermath of January’s chemical spill. Part 2 examined the environmental and employment effect of mountain top removal.

WAR, W.Va. — When Principal Florisha McGuire wants a clue about what’s going on in the homes of her students at Southside K–8 school, she often finds the answers on their feet.

“If you look at their little shoes, you can tell who has and who doesn’t,” McGuire said. “Their shoes give it away.”

But it’s their socks — more specifically, she said, if they have any — that often give away their parents’ neglect here in McDowell County, where at least one-third of residents are living below the poverty line and the money that many parents do have is spent on drugs.

McDowell’s children are the latest wave of victims as widespread addiction rips families apart — more misery for communities already suffering economic hardships from job losses in the coal industry.

In War, which inherited its name from an ancient Indian battle and is the southernmost in the state, McGuire and teachers at Southside tend to the most vulnerable casualties in the community’s ongoing tug-of-war with addiction. The battle is so pitched that the county has become the state’s poster child of what it looks like to be down and out. Out of West Virginia’s 55 counties, McDowell has the highest drug overdose death rate (PDF). It’s an infamous claim to fame that overshadows its other high rankings, for binge drinking and suicide.

McDowell residents are self-medicating, McGuire said.

But it wasn’t always that way. The county’s coal mines have been among the most productive in the state, which brought periods of boom that echoed throughout the hollows. Locals reminisce about how there were once three movie theaters in the county and the population swelled to more than 100,000. It was a dependence that would prove unsustainable. By the 1980s, a bust was well underway throughout the region’s coal hills. Mining mechanization eroded jobs, and the steel industry — coal’s main buyer — was in sharp decline.

War's Southside K-8 school Principal Florisha McGuire
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

“Everywhere you look around you, there are depressing circumstances,” which have made it easy for the community to fall prey to addiction, said McGuire, who has been Southside’s principal for three years.

A decade ago, the escape of choice was alcohol for out-of-work miners, which meant teachers saw among students mostly cases of domestic violence. But the advent of prescription pill addiction has been a game changer, she said.

“When it escalated into drug abuse, the addiction got so bad that, on average, about 43 percent of my students had lost a biological mother or father,” either from overdose or removal from their homes, McGuire said.

“It’s the biggest outside influence that we battle,” she said. In Southside’s fourth grade, about 40 percent of students are in special education; many of them were born with drug addictions, McGuire said. Inevitably, she learns their heartbreaking stories of abuse and neglect, such as when parents died from an overdose or, in more than one instance, how students were removed from their homes because a parent sold them for sex to get money for drugs.

“I’ve got kids who are unbelievably broken,” McGuire said. “For many of the kids, we’re home. I know when they’re here, they’re loved. I know when they’re here, they’ve got three meals. I know that they’re safe, warm and in a clean place.”

The daughter of an abusive alcoholic father, McGuire grew up in War and said she understands the challenges for kids.

“I grew up in poverty. Neither one of my parents had a high school education,” she said. “My dad was a profound alcoholic. There was domestic violence in my home. I was raised on welfare. But I had support other than my family that helped me be successful.”

It started on the tennis courts down the street, where she picked up the game that would make her a state semifinalist in high school and get her on a college team. The courts probably saved her life, she said.

Last fall, the community received a $100,000 grant for exercise equipment, which was purchased and put in the gym of the old Big Creek High School, and plans are underway to transform the facility into a community center.

“If you do not give these kids something to do, they’re going to fall just like their parents,” McGuire said.

“The people are good people,” she said. “It’s just a generation of people and a culture of people that kind of went the wrong way. Their whole industry — their whole everything — has been taken away from them.”

The drug problems in McDowell are representative of those throughout West Virginia, which has earned the reputation of being the nation’s drug overdose capital. From 1999 to 2004, the state had a 550 percent increase in overdoses — the highest in the U.S., according to a study of unintended pharmaceutical overdose deaths in The Journal of the American Medical Association. It’s part and parcel of the medical community’s increased prescription of opioid pain medications that started in the late 1990s in a bid for a more compassionate pain management, according to the study. New prescription guidelines were issued in 1997 in the U.S., and in the decade that followed, per capita retail purchases of methadone were 13 times as high, oxycodone nine times as high and hydrocodone four times as high as before the guidelines changed.

A hypodermic needle seen in a parking lot in Welch, W.Va.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

Locals said you would be hard pressed to find a family in McDowell County not touched by drug addiction of some variety. In late February, this truth made its way to the governor’s mansion when federal prosecutors charged Carl Tomblin, brother of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, with distribution of oxymorphone.

“I've said many times that drug addiction can affect any family,” the governor said in response to the charges, “and it has affected mine.”

In early 2012, War’s then-Mayor Tom Hatcher laid out his town’s and family’s ordeals for Playboy (PDF), hoping to draw attention to the problem and lack of rehab facilities.

“We’re just overwhelmed by prescription drugs,” he told the magazine. He described how he kept his bedroom door locked to prevent his pill-addicted son from stealing to buy drugs.

“I think the reality is, he will kill himself eventually,” the 72-year-old mayor said.

Less than six months after the article was published, Hatcher — a retired tenured college professor who had returned home to take on public service — was found murdered. His daughter-in-law and her brother, authorities charged, smothered him with a plastic bag while robbing him of $1,100 to buy drugs.

Kathy Gentry remembers when the teachers and doctors started to leave McDowell County in the late 1970s. They left along with the blue- and white-collar workers.

“We were running out of coal for the big mines to take care of,” she said. “So as the mining left, so did the big jobs.”

Gentry heads an organization in Welch, the county seat, that provides low-income housing, and she said the main job opportunities are now found at the county correctional facility and the new federal prison.

“It’s a way of life now. We’re dealing with what we have now,” she said. “When you can live 35 miles away and have eateries and motels and hotels and entertainment, why are you coming to McDowell if you haven’t been a resident all your life?”

The imposing geography of coal hill swells and valleys is a barrier blocking the county from the world beyond. Towns such as War are left isolated along secondary roads, and a 13-mile trip to Welch to the county’s only movie theater takes about 45 minutes by car — for those who have a car.

The town of Welch sits surrounded by coal hill swells.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

The economic hardships in the community mean teachers commute from outlying areas. In a school district where about one-quarter of high school students are considered proficient in reading and only 3 out of every 4 students graduate from high school, it’s understandable that teachers would want to keep a toehold outside the county line.

“Teachers don’t choose to go to bad schools if they can help it, and yet it’s a bad school because people choose not to go there,” said Greg Cruey, a math teacher at Southside and the president of the county’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “That’s a cycle that you have to find a way to break.”

It’s a cycle that also means about a 50 percent turnover in teachers from year to year. Every year is like starting over.

Three years ago, Southside received a $1.8 million federal grant to provide professional development for teachers. The turnover rate, however, shows that the program has been a horrendous failure, Cruey said. Only three teachers from the school’s 18 classes from prekindergarten through fifth grade remain from when the grant was received, he said.

It’s a problem much bigger than professional development.

“The kids who walk through our door, on average, are behind when they get here,” he said. “You have kids who show up for kindergarten, and they have never held, touched, seen a book. Nobody has ever read to them in their life.”

The county needs more housing, he said. And better roads. And more jobs. And a rehab center. And a stable food bank.

“I don’t know where you start,” Cruey said. “But I do know there’s no way we’re going to drain the swamp in 15 months.”

The teachers’ union is taking the lead on some of the most pressing community issues in order to bolster the county schools’ prospects. Two years ago, the AFT spearheaded the creation of Reconnecting McDowell, a public-private partnership of about 125 organizations, nonprofits and businesses attempting to improve the quality of life. The community program, for example, is tackling teacher turnover by addressing the lack of adequate housing in the area through the construction of a teacher village in downtown Welch. The vision is that at least 25 new apartments tucked behind the movie theater will plant the seeds for an environment that can attract and keep young teachers — at least for a few years.

“We can’t really turn around academic achievement of the children until we begin to address some of the underlying issues that they come to school with,” said Bob Brown, lead coordinator for Reconnecting McDowell.

A furniture store will soon be converted to housing for teachers near the town movie theater in hopes of creating an appealing environment in Welch, W.Va.
Ian C. Bates for Al Jazeera America

In 2001 the state took over the county school system because of poor academic performance and financial irregularities. Since Reconnecting McDowell launched, however, academic performance has taken a turn for the better. Schools and 10,000 homes have been connected to high-speed Internet service, an after-school program began to help feed children dinner, and the schools are back in the hands of the county, Brown said.

Despite the piecemeal gains, the deeply rooted and homegrown hurdles remain.

“We have to eventually get past the cynicism of a community who says, ‘We’ve seen other programs come and go … and we don’t know why education is good for our kids, and we’re not really looking for life to improve,’” he said. “They have a right to be cynical. My response is to say, “That’s OK. We are going to try anyway.’”