Book Review: Floodpath

Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles
Jon Wilkman
Bloomsbury Press
(c) 2016 by the author

What Robert Moses was for New York City, William Mulholland was for Los Angeles. Both were immensely powerful and influential in their cities, despite not holding an elective office. Both earned their positions by being very hard working, and extremely good at their jobs. Both indelibly shaped their cites forever, both for good and for bad. But where Moses’ gradual fall from power was the result of a growing realization that his roadbuilding was no longer what New York needed, Mulholland’s fall happened literally overnight.

Documentarian Jon Wilkman has written another fine book on the collapse of the St Francis Dam outside Los Angeles, on the night of March 12-13, 1928. I say “another fine book” since this is not the first volume on the subject – but it is the first I’ve read. And it really is a very fine work.

The flood from the collapse of the dam blasted down the Santa Clara river valley, leaving millions of dollars in damage, and over 400 dead. It is one of the worst civil engineering disasters in US History – but is barely remembered outside California.

Wilkman essentially divides the book into four “acts”. In the first act, he covers the career of Mulholland and his rise to influence. He covers (rather briefly but concisely) how Mulholland acquired water rights in the Owens River Valley for Los Angeles, and built the aqueduct that allowed the city to boom. In 1911, he was named the Chief Engineer for the city’s Bureau of Water Works and Supply – the position he held at the time of the disaster.

Act II describes the collapse of the dam and the flood, using eyewitness accounts (both from living survivors and contemporary accounts). It’s a very harrowing read, as people are woken up in the middle of the night to try desperately to flee the onrushing waters. Communications were rudimentary in the area; there was virtually no way to spread advance warning.

The third act covers the investigations into the disaster and the compensation given to the survivors. Everything was rushed, since plans for building what would become known as the Hoover Dam were underway, and none of the authorities wanted to jepoardize that project. The disaster itself was quikcly forgotten, and became part of the “mythology” of southern California. It helped that Mulholland fell on his sword and took full responsibility for the disaster. It utterly broke him in spirit. He retired in late 1929, and lived in relative seclusion until his death six years later.

The final act deals with two subsequent, independent analyses of the disaster. One study in the 1960s looked at evidence that was brushed aside in the initial inquest and also noted that the dam was modified from its plans during the construction. A later study in the 1990s looked at the geology of the area, and noted factors that were unknown to the builders at the time that were likely to have contributed to the collapse. In the end, it looks like it was a case of a dam that was not as sturdy as it was supposed to be, in a place where a dam should not have been built.

The ruins of the dam are still there, along the San Francisquito Canyon Road.

Wilkman wraps it up with a “coda”, where he comments on the many ways dams can fail (even rodents tunneling under or through it), and ponders how we as a nation can continue to neglect our vital infrastructure. Though he focuses on dams, his concerns apply elsewhere. New York City’s underground infrastructure is so old in some places that the city’s engineers don’t know where things are anymore. A century-old railroad bridge in New Jersey is one of the most heavily-traveled in the world – and is in dire need of replacement, not just repair. But that will cost around a billion dollars….

Wilkman doesn’t touch on it, but there’s another important issue that came to my mind after reading this book. Mulholland’s prime cause in his career was to bring water to Los Angeles. The city could not grow and thrive without a steady supply of fresh water. It owes its existence today to him….

However, California is still suffering from a major drought. And it’s not just California. Global warming is changing rainfall patterns. Aquifers and other sources of safe drinking water are drying up in the face of population growth and increased demand. It is entirely likely that water will be to the early 21st century what oil was to the late 20th – the key to economic growth, and the cause of international conflict.

We had better hope that there’s a William Mulholland out there somewhere who can find water for a thirsty world, and bring it to those who need it…..

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