With Ruthless Tide, Al Roker offers a riveting account of the 1889 Johnstown Flood, one of the worst disasters in U.S. history, and shines a light on the human causes behind this tragedy.
Why did you decide to write about the 1889 Johnstown Flood?
This was one of those stories that you hear about in weather folklore, but I didn’t really know the full story. When I started to look into it, I was blown away by its complexity and its underlying layers of class, wealth and power in this country.
Nature alone was not responsible for the flood. Can you expand?
The Johnstown Flood was a confluence of events: severe weather, a disregard for proper engineering and proper planning, and a disregard for the environment and the people living within it who are less fortunate.
Were you surprised by the seeming callousness of the elite society in the face of the disaster? Do you think such upper-class indifference still affects matters today?
I don’t think you have to be a student of societal problems to see that, in many instances, class differences and total disregard for those less fortunate still exist today. And we are seeing a rollback of the protections for environmental and societal issues at a rapid pace. It’s only a matter of time before another natural disaster brings destruction and misery because of the elimination or relaxation of those rules put in place over the years to protect people.
Clara Barton’s Red Cross faced its first real test in Johnstown after the flood, and many doubted that the organization would be effective in providing relief. How do you think this played out?
I think that expectations were low for Clara Barton and her organization’s success, and in a way, that worked to her advantage. She was able to work in and around the establishment to really get things done. And once she started to achieve results, her momentum added to her success.
Lending greater historical reality to the event, you write about the thieves, scammers and exploiters who preyed upon the survivors. Is that something you felt the overall record needed?
Anytime there are human disasters, it follows—just like night follows day—that there are those who will exploit, prey upon and take advantage of those less fortunate or people thrust into a horrible situation. We’ve seen it time and time again after hurricanes, floods or tornadoes. It’s just interesting to note that it’s not just a modern phenomenon.
Tom L. Johnson, who worked to make public transportation free as Johnstown recovered, was a revolutionary urban planner ahead of his time. What intrigues you about people like Johnson and Barton?
In the face of human tragedy and natural disasters, people can be changed forever and can rise to great heights when called upon. Tom L. Johnson went from being a somewhat callous pursuer of wealth to a believer in the greater good for his fellow man. Clara Barton helped expand an organization that to this day is synonymous with help and healing.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Ruthless Tide.
Author photo by NBC Universal.