Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough

This was the first book by historian David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of "Truman" and "John Adams", and it was written in 1968. I downloaded it from

Having known nothing about the Johnstown Flood before listening to this audiobook, I had no disinformation that needed to be swept away like the Victorian Era steel town was in 1889. The newspapers of that time made every kind of reporting error in America's first major natural disaster, and some of those mistakes are now part of the mental DNA in some people from the area surrounding the ill-fated Pennsylvania town.

My wife's family took part in the clean-up after the flood, and she said she knew quite a lot about the flood. In spite of that, she still thought the dam had been built by rich people to create a resort. Actually, the dam had been built as part of a government canal project, just before the railroads made the canal obsolete. After falling into disrepair, the earthen dam was refurbished by developers to create a lake for a hunting and fishing club, but the club's membership has all the liability that the owners of a timeshare would have if a resort burned down: none. And that is pretty much why legal action against the members never got off the ground.

It took almost 80 years for some of the best reporting and fact-finding to get done, as does in this book, and it's fortunate that there were still survivors of the disaster at the time that David McCullough was writing it. There are also the records from the American Red Cross. This was their first natural disaster response, and Clara Barton herself was there to oversee it.

All the class envy, race hatred, yellow journalism, relief money scamming and political finger pointing make a good template for future books about Hurricane Katrina that will be written by the cooler heads of the future. I hope it doesn't take 80 years. I give this one 4 stars for its thoroughness and the excellent narrative skills of the author.

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