Massive Flash Flood in Johnstown, PA Kills 88 People

Jake Buckland Flash Flood

Massive Flash Flood in Johnstown, PA Kills 88 People

A massive flash flood occurred on this day in 1977 in the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania killing eighty-four people and causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage. This wasn’t the first massive flash flood to have hit the town of Johnstown. Eighty-Eight years prior, in 1889 a dam failed and caused an enormous flash flood killing more than 2,000 people. Similar to the first flood, the dams in Conemaugh Valley caused a widespread flash flood disaster.

Engineering Failed

The massive flash flood occurred due to a substantial failure of the dam at Laurel Run. Interestingly, a post-disaster assessment determined that the dam was operating normally. No prior defects were found, and regular inspections took place, with no anomalies reported. Also, there was a 42 ft high spillway that was constructed for the exact purpose of dealing with excess water. The dam itself was earthen in design and was engineered to hold back 100 million gallons of water. However, despite all of the technological advancements, the dam failed, devastating the town. That day, five other dams also failed, bursting at the seams causing the release of an additional 30 million gallons of water over the town.

People Thought they were Safe.

The government and the local people were all surprised the dam failed. The technology that was implemented was state-of-the-art for the time and was designed to eliminate any future risk of flooding. The townspeople lived their lives unknowingly behind a false sense of security. Unfortunately, on July 20th the structural engineering efforts were no match for mother nature, and the dam collapsed.

The massive flash flood at Johnstown not only took the lives of 84 people but cost more than $300 million in damage including the homelessness of hundreds of families. President Carter declared an emergency, and the National Guard was called in to assist with the disaster recovery. To this day Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s economy has not recovered, and the population has dwindled from people moving away.


No matter how you look at it, structural mitigation efforts like dams and levees are not full proof. If you live in a valley that’s secured by a levee or dam, it's worth discussing the option of moving to higher ground, because anything can happen. The engineers, government officials and locals in Johnstown, PA all thought they were safe; unfortunately their trust was misplaced and their lives lost. Similar dam failures are not uncommon. For example, there was a :

• Levee Failure during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans that resulted in 1,800 deaths;

• St. Francis Dam Failure in Santa Clarita California that resulted in 600 deaths;

• Canyon Lake Dam Failure in Rapid City, South Dakota that resulted in 237 deaths; and
• Mill River Dam Failure that resulted in 139 Deaths.

All politicians will advocate for the safety of their local dams and levees, that much is guaranteed. They won’t risk a mass exodus of residents for fear of economic collapse and bankruptcy. As was the case in Johnstown, PA. Families have to decide if the risk of living in a flood zone is worth their families lives.

At Practical Emergency Kits, we are neither survivalists nor mindless followers of government. We believe in family, country and human life. A substantial component of that belief is preparation. Practical Emergency Kits was founded on the principal of providing families with emergency kits and practical knowledge that's grounded in scientific research. We believe knowledge is the best way of conquering fear.

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