The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

The Johnstown FloodThe Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m no history buff. I only read this because my book club chose it. But I loved it. From page 1 it’s a thriller. You know in general what happened. The title tells you that if you didn’t already know anything about it. But you don’t know exactly why or how it happened and you certainly don’t know who will survive and who won’t. The author personalizes the victims and the parties who may or may not have been responsible for this tragedy.

I learned a great deal about dams and spillways. There’s a lot more to them than I thought. In our valley there are some reservoirs that aren’t allowed to fill up even during heavy rains. I’ve always thought that was a near-criminal waste of capacity in this drought-prone region. Now I understand why engineers take the cautious approach they do. The author sneaked in lessons in history and engineering while foolish me thought it was just an exciting suspense story. He also taught us valuable lessons in human nature, like how people become inured to warnings and pretty much anything they don’t want to believe. Everyone knew the dam was dangerous, but nobody did anything about it. It’s always someone else’s responsibility. It’s the chicken little or the boy who cried wolf. Only after the worst happens did people accept it was real this time.

I listened to the audiobook and I can affirm that the reader did a perfect job – not too maudlin, not too casual. There was just enough drama in his voice without undue histrionics. I highly recommend this book.

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