Lesson #2 From The Johnstown Flood.
We sat, glued to the TV for two days (May 1-2, 2010), watching in real time as the waters kept rising. The Cumberland River, the Harpeth and the Stones, all overflowed to levels not seen in over 50 years. Downtown Nashville went under, along with Opryland, east Nashville, Bellevue and Franklin, all victims to the great Nashville Flood of 2010. Before it was over, thousands of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed and 21 people were dead. But it could have been worse, much worse.
Nashville is down river from five dams (Center Hill, Cordell Hull, Dale Hollow, Percy Priest and Old Hickory). These dams hold back thousands of times as much water as did the South Fork Dam above Johnstown, Pennsylvania. All released a lot of water, but they didn’t collapse. Two of them, the Old Hickory and Percy Priest dams, are as close to Nashville as South Fork was to Johnstown. If either of these dams had collapsed…well, don’t even think about it.
In addition to being patched with horse manure (see last week’s post), why did the South Fork dam collapse, sweeping away more than 2000 people?
Two important features of dam design are (1) discharge pipes that can be opened to lower the level of the water and (2) spillways that release rising water before it reaches the top of the dam. The higher the water, the greater the pressure on the dam, so releasing the water before it reaches the top of the dam is critically important.
At the South Fork dam, there were no discharge pipes…no way at all to lower the level of the water. As the rain hammered down and the water continued to rise, there was nothing they could do but watch. Higher and higher the water rose until it reached the spillway. But the spillway was clogged and couldn’t do its job. In order to keep fish from escaping the lake, a screen of closely spaced rods had been put across the spillway. During the heavy rain, all kinds of debris had drifted down the lake, caught on the rods and clogged the spillway, making it nearly useless. No discharge pipes…a clogged spillway…rising water and higher and higher pressure on a dam repaired with horse manure. A recipe for disaster? Yes.
And it’s a recipe for disaster in your personal life and for your organization. When the pressure is on, you better have a way of lowering the level of the water. Make sure your discharge pipes are working and your spillways not clogged. If you let the pressure rise too much, sooner or later, you—or your organization—will collapse and the casualty list will be high.
Feeling the pressure today? Don’t ignore it. Do something about it! A few suggestions that can help your organization, you personally, or both:
◊ Simplify—reduce the number of activities, projects, programs, special events
◊ Get help—don’t carry the load by yourself
◊ Rest—sometimes the best thing you can do is just shut down for a few days
◊ Exercise and eat right
◊ Make sure you aren’t the source of the pressure
Any reason you can’t start cleaning out your spillways today?
[For the full story of the flood, read The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough, my favorite author in the genre of American history.]
"The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present."
Kouzes & Posner
Great thoughts on spillway relief. Thanks for the perspective.
David, thanks for the encouragement. I have two more posts coming on lessons from the Johnstown flood, and will be speaking on this at CEOF on friday 3/18.