Lesson #1 From The Johnstown Flood.
On May 31, 1889, at 3:10pm, the South Fork Dam collapsed, releasing nearly 5 billion gallons of water in 35-40 minutes into the Little Conemaugh River (about the same amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls). One hour later, a wall of water—60 feet high in some places—hit the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, devastating the town and sweeping more than 2200 people to their deaths. The courts ruled the disaster was an Act Of God, and the heavy rainfall certainly was. But the collapse of the dam was caused by the acts of men. There is a lot for us to learn from the story of the Johnstown Flood, lessons that can help us avoid disaster in our personal lives and in our businesses or ministries.
The first break in the South Fork Dam occurred in 1862. However, since the lake was only half full and the watchman reduced the pressure on the dam by opening the relief valves, there was little flooding and the event was soon forgotten. The dam was not repaired and the lake was nearly empty and unused for almost 20 years until the South Fork Fishing And Hunting Club purchased the property and undertook repairs. Well, repairs may be an exaggeration because what they really did—to save money—was:
“…set about repairing the dam by boarding up the stone culvert
and dumping in every manner of local rock, mud, brush, hemlock boughs, hay,
just about everything at hand. Even horse manure was used in some quantity.”
The Johnstown Flood
I do not claim to be an expert in the construction or repair of earthen dams. But I am pretty sure that brush, hemlock boughs, hay and horse manure are not particularly effective materials for repairing a 60 foot high dam holding back 5 billion gallons of water. Relief and repair are not the same thing. It is often easier, less costly, and faster to fix problems with horse manure, but sooner or later….
Problems do not go away, but they do go underground or are covered with horse manure. It will always be more costly in the long run to ignore, patch, or cover problems rather than fix them. The South Fork Dam was certain to collapse when the pressure got high enough, and whatever you have in your life…your business…your ministry that is patched with horse manure is certain to collapse too.
Start today. Don’t wait until it is too late. Use concrete and rebar to fix the leaks in your life and organization. In the long run, you’ll be glad you did.
[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
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