Al Roker, co-host and weather anchor of NBC’s “Today,” vividly re-creates the tragedy of the Johnstown Flood in Ruthless Tide. In what he calls an “unnatural disaster,” 20 million tons of water hurtled past a failing dam and into a Pennsylvania valley on the afternoon of May 31, 1889, tossing animals and trees, crushing houses and killing 2,209 men, women and children. By supplying plenty of detail, Roker brings the reader so deeply into the moment (it took about 10 seconds for most of Johnstown to be utterly destroyed) that you can almost hear the water’s roar and feel the thundering crashes as rooftops and locomotives banged into buildings ripped from their foundations.
Roker makes it clear that this disaster was created by humans. A frequent recreational retreat for wealthy members, the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in Pennsylvania resisted any local concerns about the club’s dam, which was built to create a private lake. Stocking the lake with premium fish was more important than relieving water flow. Landscapes were deforested in the name of industry, but without trees, the hillsides had no resistance against flooding. Worries were ignored, warnings went unheeded, and bad decisions trumped the advice of those who knew better.
Today, one may think we are environmentally aware enough to ensure that such a catastrophe could never happen again. But one must ask if any lessons have been learned. Consider, for example, the levees and Hurricane Katrina—and remember the Johnstown Flood.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Al Roker about Ruthless Tide.