Flood Watch


National Park Service

In 1889, 20 million tons of water flooded Johnstown, PA, destroying railroad tracks, telephone lines, and hundreds of homes. After such a disaster, film student Andrew Jones asks, why do people still live there?

On May 31, 1889, one of the worst floods in American history swept through Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killing 2,209 people, destroying 1,880 homes and businesses, and resulting in $17 million worth of property damage. Since then, Johnstown has experienced several more floods. Yet today, it is a thriving city of over 100,000, touted by Money Magazine as the best small metropolitan city in Pennsylvania.

Andrew Jones, a senior majoring in film and geography, wonders why people move to an area like Johnstown that they know is prone to floods. Why do they stay even after their community is flooded? Jones decided to explore these questions in a documentary film.

"A documentary is the creative treatment of actuality," Jones explains. He borrows the definition from John Grierson, a Scottish filmmaker who coined the term 'documentary' in the 1930s. The documentary is a way to make people take a closer look at the ordinary. Jones admits, "My intent is to show people the way in which we historically viewed our relationship with river systems and how this perspective has left us in our situation today, with floods taking the status of disasters."

According to Jones, "People use a language of combat when talking about floods, saying things like, 'we're fighting back' or 'we're gonna win this battle.'" They view floods as evil forces that must be controlled. Jones disagrees. "Floods are natural phenomena that have occurred for hundreds of thousands of years." Many civilizations used floods to their advantage. Ancient Egyptians valued the Nile River and planned their agriculture around its flood times. The sediment from the river resulted in excellent topsoil for their crops. Consequently, Egyptians planted their seeds close to the water while placing their houses on a bluff away from the flood plain. To understand how communities today view floods, Jones traveled to Lycoming County in central Pennsylvania, which flooded in January 1996 when rain coupled with unseasonably warm temperatures melted the large amount of snow that had accumulated that winter. Floods occur here about every ten years; this particular flood claimed six lives and resulted in $100 million in property damage. Yet residents did not move away afterwards. Interviewing several, Jones found out why: money, ties to the community, and the value of land are just a few of the reasons that residents are not willing to pack up and move. One stated, "My wife and I talked about moving but we've already invested so much in this house and we just can't start over with a new mortgage." Economically, the value of land is cheaper on flood plains. "It's not that people do not take flood risks seriously," Jones says. "It's just difficult for some people to move due to economic reasons."

Jones also looked at the measures taken to prevent flood damage. Following World War II, the answer to fighting floods was structural: dams, dikes, levees, and overflow channels. After the Johnstown flood, the Johnstown Local Flood Protection Project (JLFPP) was started in 1937 and revived in 1997. This project consisted of widening river channels and creating concrete and masonry walls. The JLFPP has saved Johnstown over $400 million dollars in flood-related damages.

A different approach is non-structural. In 1971, flood insurance became available to protect people while allowing them to stay in their homes. New public zoning laws prevented black top from being placed on flood plain areas. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, began a program that offered to buy homes located on flood plains. According to Jones, "This program more than any other measure protects homeowners from the flood risk."

Right now, Jones is sifting through mounds of footage captured by his digital video camera. Shots of creeks and rushing rivers make great "filler" footage, background pictures for text or interviews. Jones also has historical photos, newspaper headlines, and pictures of old Pennsylvania industries courtesy of The Northumberland Historical Society and the Lycoming County Historical Society. "This is the fun part," Jones admits. "There's just a million different ways to structure the content that you get."

The difference between a documentary and a narrative film, he explains, is that a narrative film follows a script and a pre-written storyboard, a tool used by filmmakers to map out the order of the camera footage. As a result, post-production, the task of piecing footage together, is relatively easy. With a documentary, post-production is much more time-consuming.

When it is completed, Jones will give copies of his documentary to all the people who were involved, including Lycoming County's local government officials. He hopes that his film will change people's attitudes towards floods, encouraging them to think beyond why floods happen and how they developed as community disasters. Instead, Jones concludes, "We simply made choices along the way that have left us with certain results. If these choices had been changed, we would have different results today. If these choices are changed today, we will have different results for the future. The challenge is to come to a consensus as to what 'we' want and try to make choices that will take us there."

Andrew Jones is an undergraduate student with majors in film and geography in the Colleges of Communications and the Liberal Arts. His adviser is Barbara Bird, M.F.A, associate professor of communications in the College of Communications, 118 Carnegie Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1616; bob2@psu.edu. This project was funded by the Samuel Abrams Fund and the Schreyer Honors College.

Last Updated January 10, 2014