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When the Lake Conemaugh dam broke in 1889 and sent 20 million tons of water rushing into the valley below, the town of Johnstown, Pa., and over 2,200 of its residents were washed away in minutes. The devastation was complete, leaving 25,000 homeless survivors not knowing where their next meal would come from or where they would sleep.
Fifty-five undertakers were among the first relief workers who rushed from Pittsburgh, and they managed to identify most of the victims at nine field morgues. Over 750 victims remained unknown and were buried in a mass grave plot on a hill above town.
The Johnstown Flood could have been avoided if only those in power had heeded the warnings over the years. But the owners of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club and Lake Conemaugh ignored the experts and skimped on maintenance.
The club was founded by Henry Clay Frick, and the membership roster included names like Carnegie, Phipps and Mellon, the wealthiest families in the world. None of them would be found liable for any of the death and destruction, and their lives went on as usual.
Some people believed that the Johnstown Flood was the worst peacetime disaster America had seen, but it was on a scale that we could handle then. Within months, the town was being rebuilt, local businesses reopened and people started earning a living again.
The coronavirus pandemic is tougher. Imagine thousands of failed dams on thousands of hills above thousands of towns around the world. When Johnstown was destroyed, people came from everywhere to help, but now help is needed everywhere.
Historical comparisons are imprecise, but there were plenty of warnings that the pandemic was headed our way. And just as average citizens suffered the brunt of the dam collapse, working class families are most at risk now.
And the short lesson from Johnstown is this: More than anything, we must get cash in the hands of average Americans quickly if we are going to survive. The big guys have the experience and clout to get government help quickly — and we need them to survive, too — but on Main Street it’s not so simple.
The $2.2 trillion stimulus bill puts private banks in charge of the small business program, and those banks have favored businesses that already have a lending relationship with them, instead of those businesses most at risk.
The Paycheck Protection Program, which is aimed at workers, was due to run out of funds this past week. The program is underfunded and lacks the controls to distribute the money to those who need it most.
The unemployment compensation program has been crushed, even by those now unemployed full-time workers it was designed to serve. And millions of part-time workers — those who also are not able to work from home — do not qualify.
Continuing to play politics for sound bites will not get this job done. Blaming others does not help. The federal government has to step up for average American families, and the presidential election will take care of itself.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer.
Reach him at [email protected].
Joseph Sabino Mistick Columns | Opinion