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Dam Calamities: Oroville and Johnstown

Published: February 13, 2017

The compromised Oroville Dam in California, where 188,000 people have been evacuated, will no doubt draw comparisons to what was a preventable disaster in Pennsylvania 128 years ago: the infamous Johnstown Flood.

In the 1880s, a group of speculators in western Pennsylvania purchased an abandoned reservoir, Lake Conemaugh, and turned it into a private resort called The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club . The club lowered and broadened the dam so they could build a road across it. Little attention was paid to the dam itself. When it sprang leaks, they were hastily patched. A mechanism for lowering the water level of the dam was sold for scrap.

In late May, 1889, a torrential rainfall raised the water level of the reservoir, and at 3:10 PM on May 31, the dam burst. Twenty million tons of water, carrying with it trees and houses was unleashed down a narrow gorge. Fourteen miles downstream, the water swept through unsuspecting Johnstown, levelling four square miles of the town. The deluge destroyed 1,600 homes, caused $17 million in property damage, and killed 2,200 people.

The club was sued for damages, but the court declared the flood was an “act of God,” and not the club’s responsibility. Survivors were unable to obtain any compensation for damages.

America had known floods before, but they had been unpreventable. Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and its residents were swept off the earth by inattention and reckless disregard.

Ten years later, the Post was still seething over the negligence, which prompted this editorial.

The Conquest of the Preventable

THIS world would be a beautiful place to live in — if it were not for the people. Man’s worst enemy is man. The first trouble that came to man was in the Garden of Eden. Then, he threw the whole responsibility for it on some one else — and he has been doing so ever since. The greater part of the pain, sorrow and misery in life is purely a human invention, yet man, with cowardly irreverence, dares to throw the responsibility on God. It comes through man’s breaking natural, mental, physical or moral laws — which he knows. It is rarely a wrong of ignorance.

Nine-tenths of the world’s sorrow and unhappiness is preventable. What can be prevented, should be prevented. The old Greek fable of Atlas, the African King, who supported the world on his shoulders, has a modern application. The Individual is the Atlas upon whom the fate of the world rests to-day. Let each individual do his best — and the result is foreordained; it is but a matter of the unconquerable massing of the units. Let each individual bear his part as faithfully as though all the responsibility rested on him, and as calmly, as gently and as unworried as though all the responsibility rested on others.

The newspapers are the great chroniclers of preventable pain and sorrow. Paragraph after paragraph, column after column, and page after page of their story of the dark side of life might be checked off with the word “Preventable.” In each instance might be added the name of the human weakness, the sin or wrong through which the sorrow came. The “Preventable” exists in three degrees: First, that which might be prevented by the individual himself; second, that which he suffers through others; third, wherein he is the unnecessary victim of the wrongs of Society, the innocent legatee of the folly of humanity.

Ten years ago, this very month, over six thousand persons lost their lives in the Johnstown Flood by the bursting of a dam. The flood was one of the great crimes of the century. A leaking dam, for more than a year known to be unsafe, known to be unable to withstand any increased pressure, stood at the head of the valley. Below it lay a chain of villages containing over 45,000 persons in the direct line of the flood. When the heavy rains came the weakened dam gave way. Had there been one individual, one member of the South Fork Fishing Club brave enough to have done merely his duty, one member with the courage to so move his fellows and to stir up public action to make the barrier safe, over six thousand murders could have been prevented.

~Editorial, May 6, 1899

Ultimately, the Johnstown flood prompted changes in liability laws. And a hundred years later, we have better engineering, improved safety oversights, and more effective means of communication. Despite these improvements, Oroville reminds us that where human ambition meets mother nature, we need to be dam careful.

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