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Chapters four through six of McCullough’s book The Johnstown Flood, is essentially a chronicle of the disastrous element of the natural disaster. It was less an investigation of the causes of the flood, but rather an explication of the events that took place the day of the flood. The narrative that McCoullough crafts accomplishes two goals: it details the great losses that result from the flood and it provides descriptions of the flood. The narrative describes death and the destruction of homes. It describes men and women fearing that their families have been drowned as the wave passes by and consumes the only homes they’ve known. It describes men and women watching from the hill as the flood smashes their homes to smithereens. It describes a man’s horror at having to drop a cripple, and essentially leave him for dead, in order to save himself. Likewise, McCoullough describes the height and speed of the wave as it crashes through towns swallowing bridges, trees, and homes. He describes how the wave carries with it a thick mixture of trees, debris, mud, packed earth from the dam, and twisted metals from ruined train tracks.
But what is most interesting about the narrative that McCoullough builds is his insertion of humanity. When we think about natural disasters it’s easy to think about body counts or property value lost and turn that into a great epic about tragedy. Like Catherine Schmidt referenced in her post, great stories about floods persist in the myths of various different cultures, but these stories focus on great loss or the heroics of one man. But the version of the events, as told by McCollough, forces us to see the wide spectrum of humanity that persists during an event such as this. It includes tales of bravery, temperance, tragedy, cowardice, and fear. We are forced to consider not just what happened in Johnstown, but what happened to the towns touched along the way. And through interwoven impressions we are also able to see the wave through the eyes of those who experienced it. For example, McCollough contrasted the testimony of the man who felt the wave was one-hundred feet tall, with the study which put the wave at about forty. In seeing his exaggeration we are able to contextualize the fear this man was feeling. Both his description of the loss and descriptions of the flood allow for this insertion of humanity causing us to see the vast ways that the flood affected life in Johnstown and surrounding areas. McCollough leaves us with a history of the flood which is more than the sum total of bodies left in its wake.