Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 31, 2009

Johnstown flood: May 31, 1889

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on May 31, 2009


Main Street of Johnstown in the flood’s immediate aftermath.

One-hundred twenty years ago today the Johnstown Flood killed 2209 people.  The bodies of 900 victims were never recovered.

As with Hurricane Katrina, the Pennsylvania flood had both natural and human origins.  A powerful storm delivered six to ten inches of rain in twenty-four hours.  Then the natural deluge overwhelmed a neglected dam 14 milles upstream from Johnstown. 

At 3:10 in the afternoon the dam failed  releasing twenty million tons of water. The wall of water was traveling  roughly 40 miles per hour as it inundated the city under 60 feet of water.

Concern regarding the dam’s integrity had been raised by several parties, but no action had been undertaken. The natural cause could not be prevented, but was entirely predictable.  The catastrophic consequence was entirely man-made. 

Related information:

Johnstown Area Heritage Association Museum

New York Times stories from May and June, 1889

Johnstown Flood National Memorial

A civil engineering study of the dam failure

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 31, 2009 @ 7:10 am

Great post on reminding us that DAMS FAIL! There is no a federal DAM SAFETY program that has been in place since a dam failure in Georgia under President James Earl Carter. What is also of interest is that Johnstown again had a major flood in the 70’s when its ill-maintained levees failed. A dam in shorthand has water against the structure 24/7/365 and not so levees. Just in the last year the USACOE has been tasked for the first time ever with inspection and analysis of all levees whether federal, state, or local or private. The key issue facing FEMA and DHS today is how to credit dams and levees in its NFIP mapping program since the so-called 100 year flood is not what some may think. It is actually the 1% chance flood that is mapped. A 2% flood would be the 500 year flood. What this really means for the 1% annual occurrence flood is that it has a 1% probability of occurring in any given year. So in the life of a 30 year mortgage the probability is around 26% of the event occurring. This like roulette does not mean that black or red cannot occur many many times in a row. In the case of the 1% annual occurrence flood, FEMA’s mitigation division has records of it occurring multiple times with some annual reoccurrence leading to their old Section 1362 Program, buyouts, and repetitive flood loss claims in short periods of record. In Mississippi in Alambama Katrina was largely a natural disaster. In NOLA the huge flood losses and deaths were largely the result of decisions made over the last 50 yeass and still no report has ever been issued comparing losses (which were enormous) in non-NFIP mapped areas of NOLA and surrounding Parishes and mapped areas. Classic case of demonstrating that some of the mapping criteria decisions were political and not in accord with the Best Scientific and Technical Information Available standard for mapping in the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968, as amended, codified at 42 US Code Section 4001 and following.
Going back to dams for a moment the useful life of most dams is never much over 99 years even for the best designed. Why? They silt up and costs of removal are prohibitive. So have to be blown up and let nature take its course. Guess what most of the dams in the US were built in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s so payment shortly coming due and in particular the TVA dams built with WPA labor and depression era wages. Guess what the banks have the money instead of infrastructure so hoping the bankers will let us all visit their beach houses in the Hamptons.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 31, 2009 @ 7:18 am

Correction! The words “NO A” sneaked into the second sentence in the comment above.

Comment by christopher tingus

May 31, 2009 @ 10:45 am

The bankers may have their “fiat” dollars and their Hamptons mansions for the moment, however rest assured, both will succumb to their failed policies and self-agenda. The continued politicizing on both sides of the aisle and the incestuous accolades for one another promise more despair.

Coupled with the self-induced prospects for failure, American government and business interests and the arrogant greed will ultimately depict us as a third world country and the reality of a downtrodden Life here in our streets. Cuts in public safety, cuts in teachers and never do we hear of a less bureaucracy, the top making compromises.

We are worried, very, very worried. An employment seminar locally had to be cancelled because public safety officials feared far too many would show seeking 200 jobs which pay $8-$12 hourly and a larger facility must be secured to accomodate the growing numbers of folks who must compete to eek out a living. Many of these are baby boomers, those of us in our fifties with the devalued homes and substantial losses in pensions and stock portfolios.

On the other hand, you with position and post graduate degree choose to sit behind closed doors with Syrian officials as former Vice-President of the United States as example and we as citizens cannot find a transcript of the meeting behind closed doors.
How frustrating….What arrogance.

The question remains, what did James Carter share that day in the room with a country’s self-imposed leadership with bloodied hand with American soldier, our youth who we asked to give their Life to safeguard our rights and Republic.

Infrastruture requirements are many here in the States. We know as we see the deterioration.

It is time we rebuild our dams, our bridges and so much more, however not with John Kerry and Ted Kennedy as senior Senators as an example turning their cheeks to allowing US$16billion in federal and state tax dollars spent to address just seven miles of inner city Boston roadways with little transparency.

This is an great example how this country’s politicians, even though “entrusted” by precious vote to address such public infrastructure projects responsibly, blantently fail as they obviously lack the competencies, skill sets and especially the integrity to assure proper taxpayer funding for it is not their monies. These pols treat each other as icons, while families and children are left behind.

A local community just witnessed local folks spending $20k to campaign for a non-paying Selectman’s position, what’s with that? The town’s roadways are riddled with cracks, there is not enough monies to buy paper in the schools and the latest in textbooks as residents are asked repeatedly to vote for tax override.

It seems that we are endangered by within, never mind AQ and the Taliban. We seem not to have much passion for one another….We need to clasp hands and demand accuntability. We need to limit terms. we need to do much and unfortunately, we see DHS and FEMA and other government agencies inherent with disunity, a lack of mission.

We no longer respect much of what the beltway tells us. We do see pan-Asian nations led by China who may soon decide they have had enough of supporting a negligent and incompetent Congressional and Treasury membership with very little idea nor the Will to know what course to follow as we see our beloved nation falter.

I hear talk about the necessity in resilience and creativity and if we look to China and see just one company of a host of corporate entities which has hired 130,000 scientists and engineers, the brightest of the bright, a company which embarked on making batteries for automobiles and other innovative ambitions, a company which hopes to employ well over 1,000,000 employees as it and China looks to a hopeful future based on science and engineering, not on a society which knows how to create trillions of “fiat” dollars almost overnight to continue to nurture and applaud corruption and self-agenda in government and industry.

If the central bankers and government leadership in the west can bail itself out, it could of long aqo offered free tuition for example to any and every college student choosing a scientific, mathematical discipline. From what we see here on the street with all the post graduate government and industry employees with your law degrees, it is obvious that you have little idea of priority.

Lust for power and control seem to be the theme of the day and like all governments since Babylon, it is not only America which is failing, but every other nation. Unless we become more respectful of one another and we in this country embrace the interests of the majority and invite them to participate in the day to day decision making, our dams will fail, our bridges will continue to crumble and all civilized society will lose to those who seek our demise.

Let no one believe that there are those who relish in our disunity, our indifference to morality and to accosting the rights of the Constitution granted to all, including you Mr. President, who has still not stepped forward with your birth certificate as required by law and again asked by the press corps this past week….if the Republicans manipulated the previous Presidential election results as the Democratic Party asserts, then without physical presentation of your birth certificate, we seriously question the motives of and ambitions of those spending $20k to get elected to a local Selectman’s position, a former James Carter who goes behind closed doors with Syrian leadership with no permission of the sitting President and you who so many have placed trust in while failing so many by
placing yourself above the law and not presenting your physical birth certificate affording verification of your natural born citizenship.

Oh, by the way as referenced by some in your administration, those of us who choose to ask questions about our dams, our infrastucture, critical at time of our local, state and national government and so on and so forth, we are not radicals as referenced, we are proud American people vigilant during this our watch!

Christopher Tingus
64 Whidah Drive
Harwich, MA 02645 USA

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 31, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

Since Chris’ fine post and plea opens several issues wide open just need to note for the record a possibly irrelevant and immaterial comment but I don’t think that is so. SCOTUS Supreme Court of the US) with the possibil confirmation of a new Associate Justice at stake really is in need of the strongest Constitutional scholar right now. I am a fuzzy headed liberal but resent not the judicial qualities of the current nominee or her experience or ethnicity but we really are in need of broad guage leadership on SCOTUS right now. The fact that over the last three decades the decisions of SCOTUS warped the coffee house formulation of limited liabilty by the corporate form in England in the 1600s to deal with loss of shipping into broad equation of corporate “rights” with that of the individual is perhaps a fatal error to the concept of democracy (our republic) in our country. Why is this so and how does it relate to Homeland Security and resilience. I argue that resilency consists of many elements including broadly CIP (critical infrastructure protection), mitigation, and preparedness and prevention. And perhaps ecological analysis also. Okay so how do corporate rights interfere with resiliency. First, the state capitalism we seem to be developing is willing to shift the entirety of the costs of resiliency to the various levels of government while at the same time through corporate campaign gifts and lobbying deny those governments the ability through standard setting, regulation and applied research the ability to mandate commonsense resiliency. Water systems for example. And by the way many private water systems or even government administered ones are now under foreign ownership. Perhaps this impacts resiliency and perhaps not. But corporations are NOT and never will be responsible individuals as long as their existence is premised totatally on what the market’s perception is of those corporations. So that resiliency expenditures are viewed as “gold-plating” or even unnecessary by market watchers. The business schools DO NO teach business continuity or resiliency but they certainly do churn out the finance majors. Well more to come but SCOTUS needs to be held accountable for turning a “legal fiction” specifically the corporate form into the same concept as the individual with commensurate civil liberties and civil rights. Please don’t let the SCOTUS lapse into arcanery of the law and technical jibberish. Its impact in its totality must be assessed by its members and the public and the government. Corporate “wins” before the Court often deal with forcing costs on others while the benefits for the Corporation are maintained. Perhaps just letting off steam.

Comment by Daniel O'Neill

November 8, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

Johnstown is no big deal why even have the town remade at all.

Comment by Daniel O'Neill

November 8, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

Sorry if that made you mad but that was my point to make you mad Johnstown sucks.

Comment by John

May 30, 2011 @ 10:56 pm

Hey Daniel….you’re a loser. Hope you get caught in a flood and see what it’s like. Sorry if THAT makes YOU mad.

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