Night of the Johnstown Flood

Floods always have a whiff of old Noah about them. I first heard of the Johnstown flood from a minister who has had a profound impact on my life. He had been in Johnstown for the 1977 flood, and that led me to learn a little bit about America’s first great natural disaster. I decided to follow up David R. Montgomery’s flood book by David McCullough’s The Johnstown Flood. Like most stories of human tragedy, this devastating flood combined elements of human culpability with nature’s own inscrutable workings. The 1889 flood came during an unusually heavy rainstorm. Some years before, an exclusive millionaire’s club had repaired an artificial dam rebuilt for the recreation of the wealthy high above the town. Records show the repairs to have been lackluster—at one point they purchased hay to act as cheap fill. Although the members knew of the danger they did nothing to avert the deadly potential a breech in the dam would inevitably cause. When the dam burst during the storm, over 2200 people died.

Wrenching, like most natural disaster accounts are, the story of human misery raises questions of theodicy and basic humanity. Members of the club were those who ran Pittsburgh in the days before their steel mills fell silent. Apart from a few like Andrew Carnegie, who gave generously to those in dire need after the tragedy, most of club members gave nothing to the relief effort for what their negligence helped cause. They hadn’t even hired an engineer to consult about their dam project when they decided to rebuild it. Lawsuits filed failed to touch them; the suffering of thousands failed to move them. Fast forward just over a century—as the towers of the wealthy came down the working class tried to save as many as they could, some at the cost of their own lives. We all know who are regarded as the heroes.

“Was it not the likes of them [club members] that were bringing in the [foreign workers], buying legislatures, cutting wages, and getting a great deal richer than was right or good for any mortal man in a free, democratic country?” McCullough’s words, explaining the sense of those who’d lost everything to the idle dalliances of the leisured class, still ring true in the world of one percenters. Often it takes a tragedy to bring society’s inequalities into focus. As a nation we’ve gone on to have even more costly disasters since May 31, 1889, but the instability built by corporate greed has kept pace, indeed, perhaps even surpassed what it was back then. “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” or so I have it on good authority.


I wonder if I’m the only one who feels uncomfortable with the proliferation of armed military guards in public places. I know the rhetoric that “freedom is not free” (what is it then?), but when the coffee hasn’t really kicked in yet and I walk by guys young enough to be my kids holding machine guns in the bus terminals and train stations of New York, I really don’t feel safer. Sometimes I might look like a radical. Sometimes I don’t get my hair cut as often as convention dictates I should. Sometimes I forget to trim my beard. Some days I throw on my denim jacket as I head out the door in the predawn hours. Some days no one sits next to me on the bus. Am I the enemy here? I don’t like the idea of strangers seeing me naked in airports—even if only electronically. I do like the freedom of expression, but it is no longer really free.

I suppose that’s why I’ve noticed the other peacetime occupation going on in New York: Occupy Wall Street. It is time that people say “enough!” The religious leaders with the loudest voices declare this a dangerous thing, “class warfare” they say. The wealth that lines the very upper crust, however, is simply obscene. Was a day when wealth came with a healthy dose of social responsibility. They just don’t make Andrew Carnegies any more. A few Octobers ago my family visited Sleepy Hollow, New York. The cemetery made famous by Washington Irving (who is buried there) also houses William Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. On the top of the most prominent hill is a classical style, opulent mausoleum for the Rockefellers, overlooking all others. Down at the base of the hill, hidden away in a humble, quiet corner is the modest tombstone of Andrew Carnegie. I am certain that Carnegie was no saint, but he did not let his wealth go without doing some good for his fellow citizens.

Freedom is not free, but excessive wealth is tax-free. And Jesus was a venture capitalist, I’m told. We are a nation occupied in peacetime. We are occupied by our own military and their commanding officers in the towers of Wall Street. The GOP can’t support Occupy Wall Street, for it will alienate the moneyed vote it so craves. Call it “class warfare” instead. Those uppity middle and lower class bums! When the select few human beings climb too high in their towers to see the suffering of those down below, images of Babel come to mind. Babel is code for Babylonia in the Bible—the wealthy, powerful oppressor of the poor and displaced. If wealth breeds superiority, we are all in very deep trouble; the battle is already lost. In the meanwhile, I suspect Jesus might secretly be on the side of those camped out in sleeping bags, waiting for the sign of Jonah. And it has nothing to do with being swallowed by a whale.

Or maybe it does.