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Three Floods Later, Johnstown is Still Standing

By By Samantha Kramer
August 01, 2012, 12:58:54 PM EDT

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Swollen Rivers — Again

Thirty-five years ago on July 19, residents of Johnstown, Pa., watched helplessly as the river water swelled into their streets.

Again.

It was the third major flood to hit the small Pennsylvania town, and the third flood that would cause tens of millions of dollars in damage in less than a century. A train of thunderstorms unleashed almost 12 inches of rain in less than 10 hours, causing six dams to fail.

"It was like somebody dropped an atomic bomb on Johnstown," said Ron Shawley, Johnstown's Laurel Highlands Historical Village executive director. "I questioned what kind of force it would take to do that."

Shawley, then enrolled in the Navy, was just coming back from a trip in Bermuda to his parents' house. He arrived July 20 — the day after the rain hit — and had to be flown into his hometown by helicopter because all the roads were shut down.

The neighborhood he came back to, he said, was hardly recognizable.

"It was really bad," he said. "I saw cars and trucks stacked on top of each other. It really did a number."

The combination of rainfall and released dam water sent 128 million gallons of water gushing down the Conemaugh Valley, killing 85 people. The National Weather Service reported that the amount of rain that fell was a once-every-10,0000-years occurrence.


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The Flood City

Johnstown is nicknamed "The Flood City" for a reason. A flood disaster in 1889 wrought record-breaking devastation when 2,209 were killed, making it the greatest civilian loss in a single day before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Another flood struck 47 years later. The town was still recovering from the worst disaster by dam failure in American history, when rain and runoff from melting snow swelled the Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers to 18 inches in just one hour. According to the Johnstown Flood Museum, 24 people were killed.

Because of its location, Johnstown is susceptible to nearly-annual spring floods. The valley is nestled at the juncture of the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers that come together to form the larger Conemaugh River.

"The [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers did a lot of channel improvement that supposedly made Johnstown flood-free," said Richard Burkert, president and CEO of Johnstown Area Heritage Association. "Residents were under the misconception that after 1936, it's never going to happen again."

Burkert added that half of the lives lost in the 1977 flood were not because of dams bursting, but because small streams that usually were only a few inches deep had risen to 20 feet.

Most people in the area figured they were safe after extensive work was done on the dams after the 1936 flood, Shawley said.

"One of my concerns today is, 'How many man-made dams do we have left in Pennsylvania and other states that are still outdated?' " Shawley said.


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Rebuilding the Town — Again

It was another devastating blow to the town's economy. Many businesses did not reopen, and the city population dropped almost 20 percent. President Jimmy Carter declared eight Pennsylvania counties federal disaster areas.

Hundreds were left homeless and forced to take shelter in churches and schools. Over the next year, at least $200 million in federal aid was spent on damage repair and loans.

But if anything good were to come out of the disaster, it was watching the community come together to assist in rebuilding Johnstown, Shawley said.

"Everybody in the community rolled up their sleeves and got to work helping out their neighbors," he said. "Everybody was pitching in and helping out, even the ones that lost their own homes."

Because the town is now equipped with an early warning system and rigorous dam reconstructions, Burkert insists residents won't ever see such devastation again.

"It took three floods, but since then, Johnstown is a much safer place," Burkert said.

SEE IT LIVE: Go back to 1977 with WTAJ-TV Altoona Reporter Jon McClintock to see the devastation created by the 1977 Johnstown flood the day after it happens.

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