Unnatural Disasters: Hurricane Ida, Western Wildfires and Carnegie’s Johnstown Flood

Part 1

Johnstown, PA flood of 1889
Johnstown, PA flood of 1889. | Photo: vintage.es

By Chris Fry

1889 was a long time ago, 132 years to be precise, spanning many generations. Yet the terrible Johnstown Pennsylvania flood of that year and the climate-change spawned firestorms in the West and the deadly hurricanes this year, particularly Hurricane Ida, link these disasters to a common source. All of these can be traced to the utter contempt that the “captains of industry”, the “wizards of high finance”, then and now,  have for the producers of all their wealth, the workers and oppressed.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania lies in a deep river gorge, deepest in the eastern U.S., in the Allegheny Mountain range. It is where the Stony Creek and Little Conemaugh rivers meet to form the Conemaugh River. During the U.S. industrial revolution, starting in the 1850’s, it became the site of the largest steel-making operations in the country, bigger than Pittsburgh or Cleveland.

Some of the steel plants in the area were owned and managed by super-wealthy Andrew Carnegie and his fellow parasite, Henry Clay Frick. These multi-millionaires (billionaires in today’s money) were the Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk of their day – using every corrupt method to create monopolies and being extremely anti-union.

Carnegie and Frick, along with their big business partners, decided to convert an old reservoir that lay above the town of Johnstown into a luxury fishing and hunting resort for themselves and their rich buddies. This reservoir was behind an earthen dam. They had a fishing net placed over the spillway which was originally designed to let off excess water after heavy rains, and they shaved off three feet from the top of the dam to create a road for their carriages to cross the dam. They even removed drain pipes at the bottom of the dam and sold the metal for scrap.

On May 30, 1889, extremely heavy rains, from 6 to 10 inches, hit the region. Trees and telegraph lines were torn from the mountain sides into the reservoir, which, blocked by the fish net, stopped the water from going into the spillway. Resort workers tried to add dirt to the top of the dam to no avail.

At 2:55 PM the dam breached. Here is how the history.com website described it:

As the dam burst, a 30- to-40-foot-high wave rushed the 14 miles toward Johnstown. The flood was as wide as the Mississippi River and three times more powerful than Niagara Falls. As it hit Johnstown, all hell broke loose. Locomotives weighing 170,000 pounds were wrenched from railroad tracks and swept thousands of feet. Debris piled up 40 feet high; some caught fire as it hit bridges and buildings. People were sucked from buildings and tossed into a raging torrent.

“It was like the Day of Judgment I have since seen pictured in books,” Gertrude Quinn Slattery later recalled. “Pandemonium had broken loose, screams, cries and people were running.” Pets and people struggled to escape the rushing waters, but when the wall of water arrived, they were helpless. It was “a moving mass black with houses, trees, boulders, logs, and rafters coming down like an avalanche,” she wrote.

The flood then hit the Gautier Wire Works factory, causing miles of barbed wire to be tangled into the debris. Many were trapped by the wire and carried away.

In all, 2209 people died in the flood, including nearly 400 children. Many of the victims were immigrants working at the iron and steel factories in the town. Some of the bodies were found as far away as Cincinnati. Ohio. 700 victims were never identified and were buried in a mass grave.

Some of the survivors filed a suit against the resort owners who caused the flood, citing the changes made to the dam, particularly the reduction at the top, the fish net covering the spillway and the lack of maintenance. But the pro-capitalist courts declared the flood an “Act of God” and Carnegie and his friend were never held liable.

Three years later Frick hired 300 armed Pinkerton agents to attack striking steelworkers at the Carnegie-owned Homestead Steel plant in Pennsylvania. At least 12 were killed, and the strike was broken.

Hurricane Ida: The Monster Storm

On August 26 this year, Hurricane Ida roared ashore on the Louisiana coast, packing 150 mile an hour winds, with gusts of 172 miles an hour, torrents of rain and a towering storm surge. This storm had already killed 20 people in Venezuela. The storm then passed directly over Cuba, but because Cuba has a genuine socialist state, mass evacuations moved tens of thousands out of danger. Though the storm tore down trees, destroyed many homes and shut power in many areas, nobody was hurt or killed.

Once Ida, which regained tremendous strength as it passed over the Gulf Coast, hit the U.S., the devastation was widespread. In Louisiana, 26 people perished, and not just from the wind and the rain. The storm knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of people, and when it passed, the heat became unbearable and deadly. As CBS News reported on Sept. 9:

At least seven nursing home residents died after being moved to a warehouse facility in Tangipahoa Parish, where more than 800 residents from seven nursing facilities were housed as Ida tore through the state. Images of the warehouse show patients in squalid conditions and packed closely together on mattresses.

The storm moved north, then east. By the time the storm hit the Northeast, it found the ground already saturated by two tropical storms that preceded it shortly before. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York all suffered torrential rain. Johnstown, Pennsylvania evacuated 2,000 people over the threat of a dam failure. Rain fell at a rate of over 3 inches an hour in New York City, a record. Flash floods erupted all over the city, particularly in Queens. Subways were flooded, with riders forced to stand on their seats to escape the rising water.

Eighteen people died in New York. With the high rent costs in New York and New Jersey, many were trapped in so-called “illegal” basement apartments, including a family of three that were killed in Woodside.

In all, Ida killed at least 96 people, with at least $50 billion in damages across the country. And more storms appear to be on the way.

Wildfires in the West

Meanwhile, the western portion of the country is again breaking annual records for wildfire area devastation and damage. In California alone, some 15,000 firefighters, including hundreds of prisoners earning $2 to $5 a day.  Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Montana, and Nevada have all seen massive wildfires this year.  The immediate cause of these wildfires is not difficult to find, as a NY Times Sept. 9 report describes:

The period from June through August this year was the hottest on record in the United States, exceeding even the Dust Bowl summer of 1936, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Thursday.

Climate scientists agree that global warming is causing a sharp increase in deadly heatwaves and drought in some regions, and increasingly powerful and deadly storms in others. As a 2019 Reuters report states:

A jump in climate-related disasters this century, along with the global coronavirus pandemic, show political and business leaders are failing to stop the planet turning into “an uninhabitable hell” for millions, the United Nations said on Monday.

Part 2: Climate change: For today’s billionaires, a new “Act of God” 

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