Al Roker Writes About The Deadliest Flood In American History NPR's Scott Simon talks to author and NBC's Today show weatherman Al Roker about his book: Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America's Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster.

Al Roker Writes About The Deadliest Flood In American History

Al Roker Writes About The Deadliest Flood In American History

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NPR's Scott Simon talks to author and NBC's Today show weatherman Al Roker about his book: Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America's Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster.


The Johnstown Flood is one of history's great tragedies. More than 2,200 people died in May of 1889 when 20 tons of turgid waters, teeming with debris of houses, trees and drowned animals, unleashed a biblical flood in the middle of Pennsylvania. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly stated 20 tons of flood water. The correct amount is 20 million tons.]

Al Roker, the man who tells millions of Americans what their weather will be on NBC's "Today" show, has written a book about what is still the deadliest flood in American history - his book, "Ruthless Tide: The Tragic Epic Of The Johnstown Flood." Al Roker joins us in our studios here in New York. Al, good to be back with you.

AL ROKER: It is good to see you again, Scott.

SIMON: You mince no words in this book. You say this was a tragedy of human making.

ROKER: This was during the Gilded Age, and this - you know, the original 1-percenters in this country. They wanted - especially Western Pennsylvania - I mean, steel moved this country. Steel helped build this country in the industrial age. And that steel was in Western Pennsylvania and throughout Pennsylvania - and the titans of steel and of coal and railroads. And they wanted a club that their compatriots had out West. And so they created the South Fork Hunt and Fish Club. And they wanted to be able to go out boating and fishing. And so they're in the Conemaugh Valley. They dammed up a river, created an earthen dam. But it was not well prepared. And the people were concerned about it. And they said this dam could fail. And if this dam fails, it would be catastrophic.

SIMON: There was a lot of rain, wasn't there?

ROKER: I mean, we talk about rain of biblical proportions. I mean, it was more than a foot of rain. But the problem was in the engineering of the dam. There was no way to - on a methodical basis - to be able to release water. The water just kept coming over the spillway and eroding the face of the dam, which was holding in all the rock and stone. And that gave way. Within 40 minutes, 20 million tons of water was emptied and heading down the Conemaugh Valley at about 40 to 50 miles per hour.

SIMON: And as the water threatened to burst through - of course, in those days, no radio, no TV, no Twitter.


SIMON: No satellite photos of advancing storm or the water building up. Telegraph operators...


SIMON: ...In a sense, were our forebears. And some of them were heroes.

ROKER: Yeah, and lost their lives - one woman, in particular, staying at her post even though she probably knew that, given the scope of what was about to happen, she was going to lose her life. But she stayed.

SIMON: This is Hettie Ogle.

ROKER: Hettie Ogle - to send messages down the valley. But the problem is, once you get those messages down there, how do you disseminate it?

SIMON: Yeah.

ROKER: You know, again, as you say...

SIMON: Door to door is about it.

ROKER: And that's about it. And by the time everybody realized the scope of this disaster, it was too late. You could not evacuate people in time. And so it was basically described as an unleashed monster.

SIMON: Yeah. What did it look like, sound like? Can we tell?

ROKER: You know, there are some photographs of the aftermath. But people describe this as a wall of water, at some points, 40 feet tall. And as it gathered steam - as it were - there were three other towns that got wiped out. But it also took out railroad cars, steel plants that were operating. I mean, it had molten lava, molten ore in it. There was a barbed wire factory that was wiped out. And so you have literally tons of barbed wire - razor sharp wire as part of this. So it has all of this debris that is moving forward. And it's gathering speed - forward speed as this thing is going through. So people described it, you know, as the sound of, like, a hundred locomotives coming through.

SIMON: This is your, I believe, your second book about this disaster.


SIMON: Is this part of what fascinates us - that disasters have the quality of war or crisis of creating heroes and sometimes villains?

ROKER: I think they do. And what I find fascinating, in a way, is that as a nation, I think - and as a people - when disaster strikes, our hearts and our wallets open up. We want to help. You look at Hurricane Katrina. You look at Superstorm Sandy. There were heroes. And there were folks who were given blame. We need that, in a sense, to understand the fact that this is something that, in some ways, we have no control over. But in other ways, we do.

You know, these folks in this Hunt and Fish Club - over half of them did nothing to help alleviate the pain and suffering of the people whose lives were destroyed by their club. And it changed legal - it brought in tort reform and liability laws - big changes in those because most of these people who lost everything had no legal recourse to get anything back.

SIMON: Yeah. As we mentioned, Al, you are the weather for millions of Americans. Do you have any doubt about climate change?

ROKER: No, I don't. And I don't think any right-thinking person who believes in facts and figures and can see what's happening - and, hey look. They're anecdotal things. And you can't just go by that. You have to go by data. And the data shows unequivocally that we are seeing a change in our climate.

SIMON: Al Roker - his book "Ruthless Tide: The Tragic Epic Of The Johnstown Flood." Thanks so much for being with us.

ROKER: Thanks for having me, Scott.

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Correction May 19, 2018

We incorrectly say the Johnstown flood unleashed 20 tons of water. It was actually 20 million tons.