My first recoverable memory is of sitting on the back porch under candlelight in the spring of 1936, the evening after the flood of that year, in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. This was not the first Johnstown flood (there were six or so before 1889), nor the last (1977), nor the biggest (1889), but my father had been downtown at work when it hit, and he was missing. I remember the feeling of worry among the adults on the porch. I was not yet three years old.
In 1889, when downtown Johnstown was a city of 12,000 people, a wall of water 30-feet high hurtled down the Conemaugh valley with a horrible roar and smashed the entire flatlands on which the city stood, between two rivers, hemmed in closely by steep, towering hills. At a narrow neck between two huge hills where the two rivers converged, a strong stone bridge held, and formed a dam against which huge mounds of broken houses piled up, and after a few hours burst into flame. Many-ton railroad cars, trees, and other unbelievable flotsam were borne along on the raging waters and kept slamming into the burning heap. Between water and fire there followed a night of terror. The tower of St. John Gualbert Parish Church burst aflame against the night sky.
When at last the waters subsided a week or so later, some 2,280 dead bodies had been counted, 777 of them never to be identified. These Unknown Victims now lie under diagonal rows of markers, up on the dominating hilltop on which Memorial Cemetery silently thrusts its tombstones to the sky. The departed of many of Johnstown’s families lie buried there, and so these graves are visited often.
For this reason, never far from my consciousness has been the power of nature’s fury to take away an entire city’s life in an instant. (The flood of 1889 may have had some human causes, in neglect of the huge earthen dam at South Fork; but earlier and later floods did not.) You learn about the fragility of life just from growing up in Johnstown.
That may be why I have been thinking, during the hysterical media tirades since the hurricane struck New Orleans at the end of August, that the media may be exaggerating almost everything. They certainly did in Johnstown in 1889. Many rumors then reported as fact that “Hungarians” (read immigrants) were cutting fingers bearing wedding bands from the dead; which, like other things, turned out to have been fevered imaginings (perhaps partly malicious).
In particular, I took last week’s projections of “10,000 dead” with quadruple grains of salt, and felt disgust at a supposed order for “25,000 body bags.” Maybe there will be that many dead–I have not been on the scene–but I have very strongly doubted it. My disgust arose because the media should be reporting facts–not speculation before the facts are known, and especially not speculation designed to inflame.
I doubted that the death toll would reach even tiny Johnstown’s level of some 2,280 dead. (Most in Johnstown were counted, but some of the missing were believed burned beyond discovery in the flaming conflagration at the bridge, or never discovered under the silt deposited for many miles down river.) I was certain that the toll would be nothing like the proportion of Johnstown’s dead: 2,280 out of 12,000.
My main reason for suspicion is that most of our television reporters may possibly be too highly educated, hothouse protected, delicate, and inexperienced in the horrors of our world, to maintain a hardened eye on dreadful events. They are too easily shocked, too easily blown away. Maybe it is only a matter of appearances, but they seem to me not to have been permanently toughened by such horrors as World War II and so many other hellholes of our lifetime. One feels they actually believe that this world is a benign and kindly place, arranged with lawns behind neatly clipped hedges, and seem surprised that a Hobbesian world waits explosively, just below its skin–here in America, just as in any other place human beings live.
New Orleans seemed to threaten the illusions of some. To ward that off, they sought out somebody they didn’t like, to blame–making the horror manageable, projecting it away.
I was also deeply suspicious that some of the horror stories reported breathlessly in the first few days, especially from within the Superdome, never happened. Five-year-old girls raped, the throat of a little boy slit, dead babies stacked in refrigerator units, a hundred dead bodies stuffed under stadium seats. The reporting from the first five days or so will soon deserve a thorough going-over. No evidence of the worst stories has afterwards emerged, so far as I can see.
Oh, and let me address one more utterly suspect report. It takes more than four days for people to “starve,” even in the Superdome. Does no one remember Terri Schiavo’s horrible ordeal?
Such reporting as I have seen from Europe also seems distorted, although for a different reason. Candidate Gerhard Schroeder in Germany favorably compared his own presence at the rainfall-caused floods in southern Germany a few years back with the “inadequate” response of President Bush in face of Katrina. This comparison showed that Herr Schroeder had not the faintest sense of the magnitude of Katrina. If a storm with the frontal breadth and wind velocity of Katrina had hit the German coastline along the North Sea, it would have leveled many buildings along that entire coast like matchsticks, and driven its devastation inland to cover 90,000 square miles of Germany. It would have torn down bridges, pushed aside some highway overpasses, covered other autobahns beneath impassable mounds of rubble, thrown down radio and television and cell-phone towers, and uprooted entire forests.
If Katrina had hit in the south of France, it would have smashed the entire southern coastline and devastated at least a third of the country from there on northwards. If Katrina had hit the west coast of France, its front–which measured 541 miles across–would have unleashed 140-mph winds upon the entire western coastline and roared inwards to cover 90,000 square miles of France from west to east.
Winds devastating an entire 90,000 square miles of the United Kingdom would have devastated nearly every mile of it.
Almost the same goes for a storm hitting the entire Italian coastline from the French border to a point 541 miles southward, well to the south of Naples. To grab for 90,000 square miles of Italy to smash, the storm would have had to hurtle across that country and tear it up from its east coast to the Adriatic, along a front from France nearly to Calabria.
Before opining, it would be wise for Europeans to look at the aerial photographs of the southern third of the state of Mississippi, and especially the piled-up broken matchsticks that appear to be all that is left of huge swathes of Biloxi, Gulfport, Pascagoula, and other cities of that state, as well as neighboring Mobile, Alabama. Katrina hit there with more fury than it hit New Orleans. (Despite that, the governor and the state’s citizens kept far better order than in Louisiana.) Though the death tolls are rising–and will especially in Louisiana–they are currently well below 1,000. They may stay that way. We pray they do. We will wait and see.
The physical toll on buildings, trees, bridges, railroad lines, etc., is stupefying, for hundreds of miles east-west and north-south. But so far, that relatively low death toll seems to me almost miraculous. Jack Kelly has reported that the federal response to Katrina was at least as fast as that during the last six major hurricanes–and that far more goods and materials were delivered into the area hit by Katrina during the first 72-96 hours.
In the perspective of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the human lives lost to Katrina seem, blessedly, fewer than we honor in our own local cemeteries from the flood of 1889. Let’s hope the numbers slain by Katrina stay that low. And give thanks for the more than $700 million already donated to help their fellows by private citizens across this land. This outpouring of neighborliness has been greater in its proportions than Katrina itself, and it has not yet abated. Children all across the land are being taught by their parents that even they should send something precious to them to the victims. Many favorite toys are on their way.
– Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.