An Eyewitness Report: Johnstown Flood No. 3
JOHNSTOWN, Pennsylvania—The Flood City. The name itself evoked long-ago images of disaster, steam locomotives turned over, people on rooftops. But that was in another time. New city fathers decided the nickname “Flood City” harmed the town’s image and they changed it to “The Friendly City.” But old memories die hard. Wise old residents listened—but waited.
On July 20, 1977, at about 9:30 p.m., it started to sprinkle. One man and his family struggled to put up a tent to test whether it was waterproof. At 10 p.m., it was raining in earnest.
By midnight one of the town’s low-lying areas began to have some high-water problems. Solomon Run, usually a quiet stream, was beginning to rise and water was running down the steep hills in rivulets. On Arthur Street, a neighbor to one of Jehovah’s Witnesses called to him out of his second-story apartment, asking for help to dam the water from his lawn with boards.
Still nobody worried much. The city’s formidable water-defense system was part of a flood-control project built during the late 1930’s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The work was done only after Johnstown had already undergone two major floods.
The first one—the famous one—occurred in 1889, when a dam north of the city burst, killing 2,209 people. In 1936, a second flood killed twenty-two more and caused $41 million in damage. But the massive flood-control project had finally set most of Johnstown’s people at ease. Even when western Pennsylvania was deluged following Hurricane Agnes in 1972, Johnstown survived unscathed—high and, jubilantly, dry. No longer was it The Flood City—now it was The Friendly City.
But by 12:30 a.m., July 21, 1977, the two Arthur Street “dam builders” were forced to abandon their boards. In the ground-floor apartment lived a seventy-nine-year-old lady, and since the water was rising, the Witness decided to carry her up the steep stairs to his own apartment.
Then, through a long, terrifying night, he and his family watched the water climb the stairs. About 2 a.m. the water outside turned into a torrent, tearing off the porch railing. Cars came floating by, ripping away part of the porch and the front of the house. By 6 a.m. the water was up to the ceiling lights on the first floor and the house foundation shuddered. “At that point,” he said, “we thought we were dead.”
Another Witness rose at 5 a.m. as usual, to go to work despite the heavy rain. But he had to turn back at the normal routes because the roads were washed out. He then thought of the congregation’s low-lying meeting place, their Kingdom Hall, and the congregation members living in the housing project around it. So he went back to get his wife and together they picked their way on foot to the area.
The murky early-dawn light revealed a heartrending sight. At the housing project, several large apartment buildings were literally torn open, their living rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms exposed to view. The raging torrent had torn out foundations, piled up cars and deposited debris and boulders as much as fifteen feet (5 meters) high.
People were shouting, swimming toward safety and crying. The couple looked for the five Witnesses that they knew were living in the apartments, and thought that they recognized one in the distance. Unknown to them, another was being evacuated from a precarious rooftop position by helicopter. Helicopters and motorboats were appearing everywhere. Blocked from further advance by the torrent, the couple went next to the Kingdom Hall for another shock.
Picture an attractive, newly remodeled, recently landscaped building, sitting peacefully on a street that you have driven on hundreds of times. Now visualize the same building—the new addition literally torn off, the entire structure caved in, a large tree protruding through the belly of the main auditorium, and a great rent in one wall where a ten-foot-square (3-meter-square) piece of asphalt ripped through and out the other side. The familiar street is now a jagged, boulder-strewn canyon. The “lawn” is a lunar landscape. A woman checking on the Kingdom Hall sits down and cries.
At this point, a major problem was communication with other congregation members. Already the elders were receiving offers of help from neighboring congregations, but at first they could not even tell what was needed. By the following day, though, the “grapevine” had just about accounted for everyone in the congregation—but still, much coordination was needed.
The elders held their first full meeting, and priority was placed on health and safety. A checklist was made for each congregation member, listing damages and needs, including food, water, money and shelter. The next day, the elders made an effort to check personally on each household.
Attention now turned to the Kingdom Hall. The decision was to dismantle it as soon as possible. So the offers of help were now gratefully accepted. About sixty workers would be enough to recover anything worth keeping and to assist those needing help with their homes.
But by 9 a.m. Saturday, there were about 150 volunteers, with a virtual army of vehicles at the designated site. An observing National Guardsman, astonished at the total dismantling job just four days after the flood, remarked that “no way” could the Guard get organized that fast.
Some workers went to shovel out homes and businesses. The husband of a person who was studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, though opposed to their work, shook his head in disbelief as three of them worked several hours in the three-foot (.9-meter) muck of his basement. “Out of all the church groups,” he said, “no one came by to help but Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
By the end of the day, the tally was complete. One Kingdom Hall destroyed and dismantled; fourteen houses damaged, nine extensively. Five families were evacuated to homes of their families or to those of other Witnesses. And we were grateful to find that, though the death toll in the city kept climbing, not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses had been injured in the flood.
At a special meeting in a nearby Kingdom Hall the next Friday, we were thrilled by expressions of concern from our Christian brothers across the country, as well as the repeated communications about our needs from the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York.
So as the dust settles (literally) in Johnstown, we have many things for which to be grateful. We also have some things to analyze. Could we have handled the situation better? Can we tighten our bonds of Christian love even more for what may lie ahead of this old world? But some of this reflection may have to wait. For the present, we have a Kingdom Hall to rebuild.