The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

General Description (from
The history of civil engineering may sound boring, but in David McCullough’s hands it is, well, riveting. His award-winning histories of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal were preceded by this account of the disastrous dam failure that drowned Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889. Written while the last survivors of the flood were still alive, McCullough’s narrative weaves the stories of the town, the wealthy men who owned the dam, and the forces of nature into a seamless whole. His account is unforgettable: “The wave kept on coming straight toward him, heading for the very heart of the city. Stores, houses, trees, everything was going down in front of it, and the closer it came, the bigger it seemed to grow…. The height of the wall of water was at least thirty-six feet at the center…. The drowning and devastation of the city took just about ten minutes.” A powerful, definitive book, and a tribute to the thousands who died in America’s worst inland flood.–Mary Ellen Curtin

Why the President Should Read This Book
The Johnstown Flood contains all the makings of a great disaster movie; dramatic loss of life, stories of incredible survival, class warfare, the tragedy of man-made disaster, unheeded warnings, and heroic actions by many. If the book were a work of fiction it would be considered unrealistic. But it’s not these factors that make the book good reading for our leaders, but rather that in this book we see many of the issues that have caused man to create governments. Although the book does not provide answers, it helps us consider the proper role of government regulation when it comes to matters such as engineering standards and public safety. It shows that pride and arrogance are not the exclusive property of the rich (the humble folk of Johnstown ignored warnings even after the the dam broke because they didn’t trust the messenger), and indeed wealth can become a great asset to charity.