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The Johnstone Flood Essay

2726 words - 11 pages

Few disasters in history were able to be as easily prevented and had such a large causality figures as the Johnstone Flood which occurred in 1889. In is an incident that few people know about but has had a significant impact on how we look at preparedness and mitigation in the Emergency Management field.
The City of Johnstone, located in Pennsylvania was established in 1800 near the Conemaugh River and had in consequent years attracted many Welsh and German immigrants who worked for the Pennsylvanian Railroad and the Cambria Iron Works. Adjacent to the city, 24 Kilometers up the East Conemaugh River is South Fork Lake, which was approximately 144 meters higher than Johnstown. ...view middle of the document...

The South Fork Dam was roughly two miles in length, about a mile wide and sixty feet deep holding approximately 20 million tons of water. As noted earlier, the dam was originally constructed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to function as a water source for a canal system for the purpose of transportation. The canal systems life however was cut short as railroads had become more efficient in the transportation of good. Upkeep of the South Fork Dam and Conemaugh Lake were abandoned by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and sold to the Pennsylvania Railroad who subsequently sold it to the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club.
The purchased was made by Henry Frick, who was a subordinate of Andrew Carnagie. The procurement was concluded for the sole purpose of having a recreational spot for wealthy steel business associates. Prior to the sale, the former owner had modified the dam by removing several iron pipes at the base of the structure and selling them for scrap. This created a large hole at the base of the dam which was filled with dirt, rocks, straw, and logs. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, upon acquiring the dam, did not bother to install any further runoff mechanism to relieve pressure from the already weakened structure and decided to put a fish net across the spillway, ensuring the fish population in the adjacent lake flourished. Further because at its highest point the dam was narrow, Henry Frick ordered that the damn be lowered so a road to be created on top of it, allowing him and his fellow club members access to drive their vehicles across it. Due to several leaks occurring, and being patched by only mud and straw the head of the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstone raised major concerns about the dam’s integrity, but these were chiefly ignored.
Due to the lack of maintenance, purposeful weakening of the dam and poor planning it is not surprising that the scene was set for a disaster. The tragedy occurred on May 31, 1889 while a major storm system that had formed in previous days moved over the Johnstone area. It is estimated that 6-10 inches of rainfall fell in the first 24 hours. Rapidly the streams and rivers started to surge and dump water and debris into the Conemaugh Lake. This raised the water level so that it almost had crested the dam. The current President of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, Elias Unger, awoke in his farm house adjacent the dam and saw the danger to the dam. Rallying members of his club and workers they started to work on reinforcing the dam using mud, stone, and lumber. The spill way that should have released some pressure from the dam was jammed with debris that got caught in the fishnet that had been installed. The workers unsuccessfully attempted to open the spillway. Seeing that this effort was failing, they attempted to make another spillway on the other side of the dam without success.
Twice a rider was sent to telegraph the City of Johnstone to warn its...

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