The torrential rains in Colorado this week have resulted in flooding which has killed several people so far. This flooding is made worse by multiple dams which have already failed due to overfill, with dozens more at risk.
Why are they at risk? It turns out that state Republicans have blocked bills to deal with repair or maintenance on infrastructure throughout the state. These efforts, done in the name of fiscal conservatism, do not save money at all, and wind up costing far more than the money saved. Several bridges and dams had already failed before the flooding, which makes the added stress of the current conditions too much to bear. It is reported that over 100 bridges are unsafe while the number of dams nearing failure continues to climb, with over 300 dams listed as at-risk, and two dozen as of extreme risk.
The department tasked with managing the repairs for dams in the state is woefully understaffed and underbudgeted, and the state Republicans refuse to fund any repairs in their push for “small government.” This flies in the face of the reality of aging dam infrastructure across the United States, with 85% to be over a half-century old by 2020.
This is not a new scenario, of failure to maintain key infrastructure leading to disaster. In fact, it is a scenario the people of Johnstown, Pennsylvania know too well. In a wave of privatization in the late 1870’s, the state of Pennsylvania sold several key areas of the south fork river, including the South Fork Dam, to private interests. This eventually landed with a group of private developers, who used the land to found the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club in 1881. It was host to notables such as Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and a few dozen other of the wealthiest men in America. It was said that letting private hands manage the dam, which held back the reported 20 million tons of water of Lake Conemaugh, would be more cost-effective than having the state manage it. Instead, the private hands sold off the drain management systems for the value of the iron scrap, making it impossible to regulate the lake water level, and the dam fell into disrepair as ‘turning a profit’ was more important than maintaining the earthen structure.
On May 31, 1889, after several days of hard rain, the South Fork Dam gave way. In the path of the 20 million tons of water, the town of Johnstown.
Read this first hand report by 6-year-old Gertrude Quinn Slattery, a victim of the Johnstown flood, to remind us of the horror which the Republicans seek to engineer on a nationwide scale:
“I had great faith that I would not be abandoned,” she wrote. “While my thoughts were thus engaged, a large roof came floating toward me with about twenty people on it. I cried and called across the water to them to help me. This, of course they could not do. The roof was big, and they were all holding on for dear life, feeling every minute that they would be tossed to death. While I watched I kept praying, calling, and begging someone to save me. Then I saw a man come to the edge, the others holding him and talking excitedly. I could see they were trying to restrain him but he kept pulling to get away which he finally did, and plunged into the swirling waters and disappeared.
Then his head appeared and I could see he was looking in my direction and I called, cried, and begged him to come to me. He kept going down and coming up, sometimes lost to my sight entirely, only to come up next time much closer to my raft. The water was now between fifteen and twenty feet deep.
“As I sat watching this man struggling in the water my mind was firmly fixed on the fact that he was my saviour. At last he reached me, drew himself up and over the side of the mattress and lifted me up. I put both arms around his neck and held on to him like grim death. Together we went downstream with the ebb and flow of the reflex to the accompaniment of crunching, grinding, gurgling, splashing and crying and moaning of many. After drifting about we saw a little white building, standing at the edge of the water, apparently where the hill began. At the window were two men with poles helping to rescue people floating by. I was too far out for the poles, so the men called:
‘Throw that baby over here to us.’
“My hero said: ‘Do you think you can catch her?’
“They said: ‘We can try.'”
“So Maxwell McAchren threw me across the water (some say twenty feet, others fifteen. I could never find out, so I leave it to your imagination. It was considered a great feat in the town, I know.)”
The total death toll was 2,209, including 396 children. It was the single most devastating event in US history up till that point. And it was caused by privatization, by greed, by hubris, by “small government.” In other words, by the same forces at work across the country and displayed in Colorado today.
Government regulations are not there for the good times, they are there so when the bad times comes, it is a minor issue, not a major catastrophe. The results of the Johnstown flood was the adoption of strict liability in US Law, replacing the previous form of fault-based liability which allowed the super-rich to get away with the massive deaths that rainy day so many years ago. Of course, there is an attack on this rule as well, called “Tort Reform.” They want none of it, they want to undo the entire 20th century, to turn the United States into a 3rd world nation, no longer a world powerhouse but instead a banana republic.
We hope for the people of Colorado that the rains pass soon, and that the worst case scenario does not happen. Do not believe their claims of ‘fiscal responsibility’ for their ideas cost far more than any short-term money saved. However, unless they excise the “small government” Republicans within their state as well as nationwide, even if the worst case scenario does not happen this time, it is a ticking time bomb.
Just ask the people of Johnstown, PA.