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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Floods and Citizens*

*Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat
May 27, 2010
as "Water Tried to Put City Down, But Human Spirit Buoyed Us"

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

Monday, May 31, is Memorial Day, set aside after the Civil War to honor America’s war dead. It’s also the holiday weekend that marks the “official” start of the summer holidays.

But for the people here in Johnstown, the day marks an event that is far more personal.

In 1889, after two days of torrential rain, a poorly maintained earthen dam in the Laurel Mountains gave way. Some 20 million tons of water roared down a twisting series of gorges for some 14 miles before exploding on the city of Johnstown. The town was almost completely destroyed and 2,209 people perished.

These are familiar facts to those who live here. For others, it is history. But for Johnstowners, these are memories.

This was not the only water-borne disaster. March 17, 1936, after another long torrential downpour, the city flooded again. 24 people died that day. And on July 20, 1977, the skies opened yet again, and another dam collapsed. This time, 85 were lost. The damage totals, corrected for inflation are staggering. The $17 million in 1889 becomes $414 million in 2010. The 1936 total of $41 million explodes to $649 million today. And even as recent as 1977, that $300 million would be $1.07 billion if the flood happened today. If you add those figures up, floods in Johnstown have racked up a total of over $2.1 billion in damages.

This year, we had another scare. As spring approached, we looked nervously at the almost 14 feet of snow and prayed that the seasonal warm-up would be slow. Fortunately, we dodged a bullet. The snow melted at a manageable rate and the swamping rains of spring waited until the white stuff was completely gone.

Still, one has to think about the consequences of another flood. The people of this community have always shown great courage and stubborn resilience in the face of disaster. But the question needs to be asked.

Could we survive another flood?

I am a weather nut, and since I’m also a trained weather spotter, I guess you could even say a certified weather nut. I grew up in the Midwest, fascinated by what has always been a dynamic laboratory for severe weather. But here, I’ve found that the mountains do strange things to the air.

Johnstown sits in a saddle between two ridges, Babcock to the east and Laurel to the west. These ridges are not all that tall, as mountains go, but somehow they occasionally trap towering thunderstorms between them bringing downpours of sometimes biblical proportions. This is a process I don’t understand, and someday, if I encounter Jim, Tony, or Tim at the Galleria, I intend to ask our Three Horsemen of the Snowpocalypse how two 2,500-foot ridges could possibly capture a supercell towering 7 or 8 miles into the atmosphere.
But even understanding that process won’t do much to stop it. At some point in the future, another giant storm will pour water into this valley. The rivers will rise, crest, and flow into the streets. Homes and businesses will be inundated...

And lives will probably be lost.

But like Californians and their fault lines, we have to live with our rivers and our rain. Our only choice is to prepare as best we can, and stand ready to help our neighbors. The good news is that weather forecasting today is the best it has ever been. When it comes, we will almost certainly have enough warning to get to safety.

I’ve only lived here for 6 years, but in that time I’ve taken the measure of the people of this town. And while I may not know enough about weather, I do know that the people of Johnstown will meet that dark day with the same courage and unity as those who went before.

The voices of the past speak to us across the decades, telling us that one most important lesson they learned:

As long as we stand together, nothing can take us down.
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