This is David McCullough’s first book, published in 1968, and relatively (or more so comparatively) small in size and scope from his later, much longer books. This takes on the history of the Johnstown Flood, not only one of the worst flooding disasters in American history in terms of damage and loss of life, but also one of the first natural disasters (however natural you want to call this one) that captured national attention as a kind of media blitz.
This book begins with some important contextual information about the town of Johnstown, PA and how the local geography, politics, governmental and financial structures put the town into the specific path of the flood. This process begins more or less about 40 years before the flood when the construction of the local dam, as well as later flood walls are proposed, designed, and built. For example, the dam itself was designed and predicted to cost a certain amount of money and take a few years (3 or so) to construct, but money shortfalls in state budgets prolonged the construction to 15 years overall, with resultant rise in costs and shortfall in quality as a consequence. This early information helps us to better understand not only why the flood was particularly devastating, but also how blame was later apportioned out in the aftermath.
The second part of the book takes us to the moments right before the disaster. This is our human error section where decisions made at the local level that delayed or ignored warning signs led to a too late effort to evacuate the flood zones in the town. Next, we get the actual flood itself, which is described in pretty horrific terms throughout. McCullough’s details and narration are awful and painful and terrifying. There’s a very real and clear sense of complete and total vulnerability. No one is safe. Not only that, this is a flood in which numerous people died from fire and decapitation. Drowning is bad enough, but the additional threats of the flood were numerous.
In the last couple sections, we’re dealing with the historical record of the devastation. The agreed upon death toll (a little over 2000 dead) and the financial ruin. But in addition to this, McCollough spends a lot of time focusing on the ways in which local and national media took up the events, reported on them, and how it became the kind of story we recognize now.
This is just a masterclass in good, popular, and compelling history, writ large in tragedy, but small in the scope of human affairs.