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Johnstown Flood: Anniversary of a Catastrophe

5coverMay 31, 1889, a small river near Pittsburgh grew to the size of the Mississippi when the South Fork Dam overflowed and then broke apart, releasing 20 million tons of water into the valley below and killing over 2,000 people.

The river valley had hills on each side and became a chute for all this water, funneling it the 14 miles to Johnstown. The 40 foot wall of water ripped up trees, houses, businesses and even railroad cars and pushed it down the valley. The velocity of the water and 14 miles worth of landscaping and development would easily have been enough to take out the Johnstown bridge but there was a turn in the valley just before and the hillside took the force of the blow. So instead of washing out the bridge and carrying on, the bridge’s supports quickly filled with the junk that was being pushed along, creating another dam. Thus, the lake created by the South Fork Dam reformed over Johnstown, which is why it is called the Johnstown flood.

Only a few structures survived and were stuffed with people who had been pulled to safety as they floated by on rooftops, mattresses and other debris. Most people huddled on the hillside exposed to the chilly night air. The most unfortunate crowd were the people caught in the wreckage at the bridge, because the new “dam” caught fire.

2,209 people died, most of whom were in Johnstown. Almost everyone lost at least a family member and everyone in town lost their home and all their possessions. And to add insult to injury, this was a man-made disaster caused in large part by negligence. The lake was built by the South Fork Club, a summer retreat for wealthy club members. Local people weren’t allowed on the grounds and the dam served no practical purpose. It had been improperly rebuilt by the club some years earlier. And the club paid no damages or acknowledged any wrongdoing even after investigations into why the dam failed found a number of fatal flaws in the repair work done.

If ever a disaster had the ingredients to cause PTSD, this one has it. There is evidence of both trauma symptoms and post-trauma growth.

The Johnstown flood was the first major catastrophe for Clara Barton and her newly founded Red Cross. She conducted a needs assessment a few days after the flood and among other things, discovered a number of “cases of prolonged shock.” This was also described in the Medical News of Philadelphia as “a profound melancholia associate with an almost absolute disregard of the future” and “a peculiar intonation of words, the persons speaking mechanically.”

And while a number of people reported trauma symptoms, the overall short-term impact was that of rejuvenation. As David McCullough reported, in the weeks after the flood there were fewer cases of colds, measles and “spring disorders” that there normally were, although the sanitation and public health education that everyone received probably helped. Almost every witness interviewed reported there was “almost like a spirit of exhilaration in the air” and that “the almost absurd idea that they were going to pick up and start over again, to rebuilding everything, began working like a tonic. “  Children remembered it as a “time of high adventure.”

There is far too much to cover in a blog post. I relied heavily on The Johnstown Flood
by Dave McCullough. It was a riveting, factual and personal account of the event and I highly recommend it.

Johnstown Flood: Anniversary of a Catastrophe

Sara Staggs, LICSW, MPH

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APA Reference
Staggs, S. (2015). Johnstown Flood: Anniversary of a Catastrophe. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 31 May 2015
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