Floodpath: The Deadliest Man Made Disaster of 20th Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles


"One late afternoon in 2013, I walked along an abandoned two-lane road until I arrived where the St. Francis Dam once stood. At first there were few signs the wall of concrete ever existed, but when I continued a short distance into the underbrush, half-hidden outcroppings of rubble appeared.  Looking at the hillside, I could identify faded scour marks, left decades before by a flood surge 140 feet high.  A great tragedy happened here.  It was hard not to wonder: who or what was responsible, how it happened, why such a deadly disaster was so quickly forgotten, and whether there are urgent lessons yet to be learned.  When I hiked back to my car, the sun was setting.  On a dark night, as it was on March 12, 1928, the silence in San Francisquito Canyon is absolute . . . like a tomb waiting to be reopened . . ."

"Twenty-eight-year old Bureau of Power and Light carpenter, Ace Hopewell lived in Los Angeles.  On his way to Powerhouse 1 . . . the night was dark and cold as [he] followed the road up the hillside toward the east side of the St. Francis Dam.  Nothing looked out of place when he slowly drove past and continued on.  After about a mile and a half, he decided to stop for a cigarette.  It was then that something caught his attention -- a sound -- from behind.  'I heard a rumbling noise.  At I least I thought I did . . . I was positive that I heard a rumbling noise.' He thought it might be rocks rolling down the hill . . . Ahead Hopewell could see light from two cars, 'considerably in the lead of me.' Hearing nothing more, he tossed aside his cigarette, revved his bike and rode on."

"A feisty thirteen-year-old, Thelma McCauley, was in bed with the measles when she felt her Bardsdale home move.  Thelma's mother Helen, and father Milford, quickly gathered her and her seventeen-year-old brother, Stanton, but they were uncertain what to do.  The teenager headed for the back door.  'I said, 'Mother, I'm going to get out!.' and my mother said, 'Oh, you foolish child, you can't!'  And I said, 'I'm going to get out!' And out I went, out the door.   And that was the last I saw of them."  Like so many others, Thelma was enveloped by something cold, damp, dark and fast moving.  Beneath her, a bed of debris swept along like a manic flying carpet.  On the shoreline, headlights from an automobile blurred past and reflected onto the floodwaters. Screams and calls for help grew louder and faded.  Everything was in motion as the young girl lost a sense of time and place."

"Local funeral homes were overwhelmed.  When Oliver Reardon, the Ventura County Coroner, called for volunteers to staff makeshift morgues, 150 people showed up.  In Newhall, a combination poolroom and dancehall was hastily repurposed.  The large space was draped with festive decorations left from a recent celebration.  A prominent sign greeted arrivals with a cheery WELCOME!  Rows of bodies, covered with white sheets, lay on pine boards lined along the dancehall walls.  Searching for loved ones, men and woman slowed moved past.  The sound of shuffling shoes was mingled with sobs and soft gasps.  When a visitor paused, a volunteer lifted a sheet to allow a glimpse of a victim's face, many of whom were brutally beaten by the impact of the flood."

"Mulholland remained steadfast in his conviction that the dam he built was safe . . . Knowing what happened, would he build a dam at the same site again? 'Not in the same place,' the Chief finally admitted. Why? Mulholland hesitated. 'It fell this time and there is a hoodoo on it.  That would be enough for me.'  Hoodoo?  The intellectual snickering among Mulholland's critics and a generation of university-trained engineers was almost audible.  What did the Chief mean by 'hoodoo?'  His answer was chilling. 'It is vulnerable against human aggression, and I would not build it there. . . This thing has got away with me,' he said, then broke down in tears.  When Mulholland regained his composure he looked squarely at the men in the jurors' box, 'If there is an error of human judgment, I was the human.  I won't try to fastened it on anybody else.'"

"A 2013 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the quality of dam infrastructure in the United States a grade of D+.  More than 4,000 dams were judged susceptible to failure.  Only 66 percent of 14,000 high-hazard dams had an emergency action plan . . . It was estimated that at least $21 billion would be needed to respond to the precarious state of dams alone, and that figure had nowhere to go but up.  Let's hope it doesn't take another failure and more deaths to finally disinter the lessons of the St. Francis Dam, or better than hope, why not act before it happens."