Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Johnstown Flood

I came into this book expecting some standard inspiring tale of men making sandbag barriers and fighting off the elements heroically. I started it skeptically, figuring, "Well, I know the author (David McCullough) is good from reading Truman, but will he be able to do it again with The Johnstown Flood?" I had this book ready to be read for a couple months now, but kept putting it off for fear of a long, drawn-out story about a flood.

I've never been in a flood. I've always pictured it to be a silly sort of natural disaster. I always imagined seeing the water slowly rise and travel where it shouldn't, and I always thought, "Oooh!" with sarcasm, "So scary!"

That is, until I read about the Johnstown Flood.

Absolute Destruction

I can now say with gusto that the Johnstown Flood is the most terrifying disaster I have EVER heard of. This was no ordinary flood. At first, rains were exceptionally heavy, causing water to gather high enough to go through your door and cover your living room floor. Irritating, but not terribly dangerous. However, what made the Johnstown Flood really dangerous was a dam that was placed above the town, a dam that had largely been neglected and ignored for years, a dam that, on that fateful day, was unable to withstand the rains. What burst forth was a tidal wave, a mass with enough force to knock sturdy brick houses over like cards.

And we're not talking just any old tidal wave here. This monstrous wave picked up every piece of debris you can think of on its way to the town. It utterly destroyed a barbed wire factory, causing hundreds of feet of barbed wire to swirl about inside of the wave. Every house it knocked over only added to its momentum. Entire trains were blown off their rails and hurled about like confetti. The power of the wave was such that they found corpses buried in the mud after it had passed; the wave had slammed into people so hard that they had literally been piledrived into the earth. It finally stopped when all the debris, people, and livestock were slammed into the side of a stone bridge, creating a monstrous ball of wreckage and humanity. Then, for no understandable reason, it caught on fire. Everything and everyone then had to survive the huge amount of water that remained, with no food, safe water, or anything terribly helpful. The list of people who died at the back of the book reaches at least thirty pages.

Needless to say, this is one of the most horrifying disasters I've ever heard of or read. My previous dismissive attitude toward floods is now changed.

Mind-Boggling Insanity

David McCullough is an outstanding writer. In this book, he takes you through the disaster one step at a time, and just about every step is incredibly compelling to read. You first read about the Johnstown area and are steeped briefly in its history. Then you begin to read about what the Johnstown people did over the years that would make it unintentionally easier for a flood to occur. Chopping down trees that would make runoff accumulate faster. The construction of a dam that quickly becomes economically obsolete, and thus neglected. Thinning of the rivers in order to make for living space, giving water less room to expand when the rains come. Uncertainty and a sense of foreboding sets in.

Then the author takes you on a step by step explanation of how it went down. At every stage, you feel for the people as you hear of the totally insane things that happened; a man goes out on his front porch and sees another man riding atop a train downhill, the train man pausing only momentarily to grab a branch and leap through the other guy's upstairs window. At one point, a woman is swept along with the wave and sees a family standing on top of a kitchen floor (no other piece of the house in sight), frantically stuffing clothes into a chest before being utterly consumed by a secondary wave. Dead horses shot up into the air, here and there, as the wave approached. Totally crazy. And this is a tiny sample of the bizarre, sad, and incredible things that occurred with this disaster.


And, in the latter third of the book, you get to read of the immense rescue effort that went down afterward. People of all sorts showed up to help out, take pictures, or be pests. Sensationalist newspapers somehow managed to blow the already crazy situation completely out of proportion which, while outrageous, actually served to bring Johnstown far more relief aid than they probably would have received otherwise. Journalists hired teams to get there on foot, racing each other to get to the situation and to report back to people across the world. The inexplicable appearance of seemingly infinite amounts of whiskey retrieved from god-only-knows-where made the rescue effort additionally... exciting.

And, even through all this madness that enthralled me so much that I finished the book in a mere two days, I was impressed that the book simultaneously entertained and educated at the same time. You get an excellent explanation of why the dam broke, you see the ramifications afterward with lawsuits scattered everywhere, and the author provides superb details on every step of the journey. Frankly, I'm impressed that he was able to find so much and cast it in a light that made the book both a compulsive page-turner and intellectually stimulating.

My only caveats are that the beginning is a bit slow and that David McCullough has a habit of random name dropping that takes a bit of getting used to. But the slow beginning makes sense; he sets you up to care for the people who lived in Johnstown at the time, and gives you a sense of landmarks and geography so you have some comprehension of what gets obliterated later and why. As for the name dropping, the only reason this gave me trouble was because I'm used to reading biographies; once you understand that this involves an 'ensemble cast' and no 'main character', everything flows perfectly.

In short, this is probably one of the most fantastic history books I've ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone who has even the remotest interest in history or a good story.


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