September 01, 2005

David Brooks, The Johnstown Flood, and Hell To Pay

I started off calling this diary David Brooks is a Goddamn Liar based on his opinion piece in the New York Times.  However, while he does let a lie slip through early in his opinion, the rest of the piece reads fairly well.

He begins by discussing the Johnstown flood, based upon his reading of David McCullough's book of the same name.  While McCullough is famous for a variety of books now (John Adams, 1776), I first heard of him when I picked up The Johnstown Flood book back in 1996.  So, a little about the Johnstown flood from Brooks.

In 1889 in Pennsylvania, a great flood washed away much of Johnstown. The water's crushing destruction sounded to one person like a "lot of horses grinding oats." Witnesses watched hundreds of people trapped on a burning bridge, forced to choose between burning to death or throwing themselves into the churning waters to drown.

The flood was so abnormal that the country seemed to have trouble grasping what had happened. The national media were filled with wild exaggerations and fabrications: stories of rivers dammed with corpses, of children who died while playing ring-around-the-rosy and who were found with their hands still clasped and with smiles still on their faces.

If it sounds bad, but not hideous, you're wrong.

It has been described as a rolling hill of debris (trees, trains, tracks, boulders, houses, people), 40 feet high and a half-mile wide.

Then, as David McCullough notes in "The Johnstown Flood," public fury turned on the Pittsburgh millionaires whose club's fishing pond had emptied on the town. The Chicago Herald depicted the millionaires as Roman aristocrats, seeking pleasure while the poor died like beasts in the Coliseum.

Even before the flood, public resentment was building against the newly rich industrialists. Protests were growing against the trusts, against industrialization and against the new concentrations of wealth. The Johnstown flood crystallized popular anger, for the fishing club was indeed partly to blame. Public reaction to the disaster helped set the stage for the progressive movement and the trust-busting that was to come.

Actually, the fishing club was totally to blame.  The fishing pond was large enough to house a paddle-wheel river boat, sat on top of a mountain, behind a day.  It was the club's responsibility to maintain the dam. The dam was allowed to fall into disrepair because it was going to cost too much to do the repairs.  This from the wealthiest men in the world.  The crest of the dam was allowed to droop and the flood gates were allowed to fall into disrepair.  Had it not been for those actions, MAYBE the flood would never have happened.

This incredible painting gives the best indication of what happened.


BTW, What an Incredible Site

So, that is the lie, that Mellon, Frick, Carnegie and the gang of robber barons had a little bit to do with the Johnstown Flood.  They were negligent and responsible.

However, I have to say that the rest of the article seems to suggest that their will be hell to pay for this flood.  Most surprising, he seems to suggest that it is the current administration that will pay said hell.

Then in 1927, the great Mississippi flood rumbled down upon New Orleans. As Barry writes in his account, "Rising Tide," the disaster ripped the veil off the genteel, feudal relations between whites and blacks, and revealed the festering iniquities. Blacks were rounded up into work camps and held by armed guards. They were prevented from leaving as the waters rose. A steamer, the Capitol, played "Bye Bye Blackbird" as it sailed away. The racist violence that followed the floods helped persuade many blacks to move north.

Civic leaders intentionally flooded poor and middle-class areas to ease the water's pressure on the city, and then reneged on promises to compensate those whose homes were destroyed. That helped fuel the populist anger that led to Huey Long's success. Across the country people demanded that the federal government get involved in disaster relief, helping to set the stage for the New Deal...

Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What's happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.

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