Sunday, August 14, 2022

Ruthless Tide by Al Roker

Ruthless Tide by Today show cohost Al Roker is a solid work of nonfiction subtitled The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America's Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster. The book chronicles the man-caused disaster that killed more than 2,200 people in May 1889. Roker notes how the South Fork dam in Pennsylvania giving way unleashed some 20 million tons of water on the areas below it, with a current that traveled 30 miles an hour, with swells as high as 60 feet, down the narrow Conemaugh Valley, 14 miles to Johnstown.  

The earthen dam replaced a previously failed one, with the rebuilding of the natural structure not addressing its deficiencies, on the South Fork Creek that joined into the Little Conemaugh River. The dam created a private lake for the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club that included as members Andrew Mellon and Andrew Carnegie. It wasn't that nobody thought the dam wasn't safe, but those in charge proclaimed that it was. When water tops an earthen dam and spills over it, the face of the dam is worn away, eventually bringing it down. The structural failure of the dam was it not having a good way to release water, preventing it from reaching the top of the dam. A spillway was built into the dam for that purpose of releasing water, but wasn't enough, and its ability to release water was mitigated by a fishguard built in front of the spillway. It was to keep in the lake prized black bass fish that members went after. In part because of the fishguard, the spillway could only release water passively. 

The region was battered by a heavy storm, with the man-made lake filling up fast and by the time people at the dam in charge of it decided to try to remove the fishguard, it was too late, and the spillway had become clogged by other debris as well. Water went over the dam, cut grooves out of it, and it gave way, emptying the lake over the course of 30 to 45 minutes, leaving acres of mud. Johnstown was first pummeled with water and then fires started, with a stone bridge in Johnstown remaining standing, and exacerbating the death and destruction as it created a funeral pyre of sorts, with people and debris piling up and burning there. 

It's also fascinating reading about the events after the disaster, including Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross coming on scene and establishing what the organization was capable of, and has continued to this day. Also, the disaster had effects on the legal system, creating greater liability where it due. While members of the South Fork club and people who ran it largely escaped liability in lawsuits filed, laws were changed to reflect that those who altered a natural environment had greater responsibility for any harm that was caused. 

Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris

 Happy-Go-Lucky by David Sedaris is his first new collection of essays since Calypso was published in 2018. 

It's an entertaining and poignant book that features stories about New York City during covid lockdown, time with his partner Hugh, and the death of his father.