Anatomy of a Disaster

In 1975, when Dale and I were house-hunting, one of our most important criteria was that the house not be in a flood plain. The memories of the devastation caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972 were still fresh enough that we didn’t want to knowingly run the risk of being flooded. One house we looked at was on Water Street in Lemoyne, just a couple blocks from the Susquehanna River. The street name itself was ominous, but then we learned that during Agnes the water had risen about 3-4 feet on the first floor! We felt completely vindicated for not giving that house a second look when in 1975 soon after we moved into the Hill section of Harrisburg (emphasis on the HILL), Hurricane Eloise flooded the river again. In later years after we had moved out of the city, I worked in an office complex on Front Street in Harrisburg. Twice during those years – in 1996 and 2011 – the office was closed because of flooding from the river.

This table of historical floods in Harrisburg lists 48 times since 1786 when the Susquehanna River has crested higher than 17 feet, the official flood stage. The worst flood was in 1972, which surpassed the 1936 flood everyone used to talk about before Agnes, which in turn was worse than the third-ranked flood on June 2, 1889.

johnstownfloodThat third-worst flood in Harrisburg happened as part of the same massive spring storm system that caused what was the worst natural disaster in the United States to date – the Johnstown Flood on May 31, 1889, just 140 miles west of Harrisburg. Actually, it could be debated whether the wet spring and heavy rains in late May really caused the Johnstown Flood, or whether it was the failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River upstream from Johnstown that was responsible for the devastation. And therein lies the story eminent historian David McCullough tells in his first book, The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known, published in 1968.

This is another of those books I probably wouldn’t have read had it not been a book club selection, but I’m very glad I did. As a resident of Pennsylvania, I’ve heard about the Johnstown Flood for years but never knew much about it. In addition to learning an important piece of Pennsylvania history, I couldn’t help noting parallels of the Johnstown Flood with more recent natural disasters.

1. The cause. The heavy rain would have caused flooding of nearby rivers and creeks even if the dam had not collapsed, but the rain by itself would not have practically wiped out the city of Johnstown. The dam had been built to create a lake solely for the recreational use of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive resort owned primarily by wealthy entrepreneurs from Pittsburgh (think of names like Carnegie and Mellon). When the dam was rebuilt some years before, it had been constructed entirely of earth and not checked thoroughly for its ability to withstand major pressure should the lake rise quickly. After the flood, the collapse of the dam was the subject of a major investigation. The findings were blunt: “Our information is positive, direct, and unimpeachable that at no time during the process of rebuilding the dam was ANY ENGINEER WHATEVER, young or old, good or bad, known or unknown, engaged or consulted as to the work. . . .” (p. 247).

I couldn’t help thinking about Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when the levees broke and created even more devastation and death than would have been the case just from the storm. At the time, it was determined that some of the levees had been poorly designed. And of course, every time another hurricane hits the east coast and destroys homes and business built just a few feet from the ocean, there are questions about whether 1) it was wise to build there in the first place, and 2) everything should be rebuilt when there is a strong possibility of another hurricane.

2. Disaster as punishment from God. Natural disasters inevitably seem to invite analysis as to whether they were caused by some sin (or sins) for which God has called down judgment. Many will remember comments like this in the wake of Katrina: “Katrina was an act of God upon a sin-loving and rebellious nation, a warning to all who foolishly and arrogantly believe there is no God, and that if He did exist, ‘would not have done such a thing!’ It is also a serious call to repent, to turn away from our wicked ways, from the heart of a loving Father” (David Crowe). Similarly, the Johnstown Flood was portrayed by preachers as “a sign unto all men, . . . and woe until the land if it were not heeded. The steel town had been a sin town and so the Lord had destroyed it; for surely only a vile and wicked place would have been visited by so hideous a calamity” (p. 252). For the record, I’m really uncomfortable with the view that God rains down judgment in this way.

3. Press coverage. In these days of a constant barrage of media coverage of any significant (even insignifcant!) and/or dramatic event, it is easy to think that this is a relatively new phenomenon and is so much more comprehensive and all-consuming now than in the past. Reading McCullough’s book made me realize that even though there is a vast difference in communications technology between 1889 and 2013, the rush to get the latest news about a disaster is no greater now than it was then. In 1889, the “press” consisted primarily of newspapers, and hundreds of newspaper reporters from all over the country descended on Johnstown in the days following the flood. Everyone was looking for an angle or a dramatic story – so much so that reporters sometimes made up stories or embellished the facts to beat their competition. McCullough’s description paints a picture of something like the 1889 version of today’s 24/7 cable news shows. Multiple editions of newspapers were printed each day, blaring huge headlines on the front page; people lined up to wait for the newest edition, and papers were sold out almost as soon as they hit the streets.

4. Generous response. In response to the Johnstown Flood, the equivalent in today’s dollars of $179 million was contributed to help the survivors: “the enormous sympathy aroused by the newspaper accounts, . . . brought on the greatest outpouring of popular charity the country had ever seen” (p. 224). McCullough gives lots of fascinating details about the material resources that were contributed: potatoes from Walla Walla, ham from Cincinnati, bread baked by prisoners at the Western Penitentiary, donations from all over of “cots, mattresses, hair combs, pipes, pillows, teakettles, tents, cookstoves, and more than 7,000 pairs of shoes” (pp. 225-226). Small and large contributions came: pennies from children, to thousands of dollars from foreign countries and wealthy individuals. There were benefit concerts and exhibition fights to raise money. The generous response from ordinary people to the Johnstown Flood has been repeated many times in the years since each time there is a new natural disaster.

Clara Barton and doctors and nurses from the newly organized American Red Cross also came; Clara stayed five months. Obviously, this was a harbinger of the way the Red Cross continues to mobilize locally and nationally whenever there is an emergency or a disaster. And it makes me want to give a shout-out to one of the best disaster response agencies I know, small though it is. Mennonite Disaster Service has developed a reputation since its founding in 1950 for spending months and even years in communities affected by a natural disaster helping to clean up, repair and rebuild homes and developing caring and supportive relationships with the people they serve.

The Johnstown Flood was incredible and devastating, and McCullough tells its story well. It remains the fourth worst natural disaster in U.S. history in terms of lives lost (the top three are the tropical cyclone in Galveston, Texas in 1900; San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906; and a tropical cyclone in Florida and Puerto Rico in 1928). While it was difficult to identify and document everyone who died in the flood, the official record says that 2,209 were lost. The Johnstown Flood was indeed, as McCullough’s subtitle says, “one of the most devastating disasters America has ever seen.”


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