116 years ago, another flooded American city battled for survival

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More than 116 years before Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, a flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania exposed the rift between rich and poor, the kindness of strangers and, in the end, the power of the human spirit to rebuild. "It's more than just a disaster. It was the biggest story of the late 19th century," said Richard Burkert, executive director of the Johnstown Flood Museum.

In 1889, flooding wasn't anything new to the approximately 25,000 residents in this valley town about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. But the heavy rains on May 31 brought on something much more catastrophic.

Fourteen miles away, the South Fork Dam burst on man-made Lake Conemaugh. The rock and clay dam, which held back 20 million tons of water, had been poorly maintained by an exclusive fishing and hunting club whose members included industrialists Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.

The water barreled into Johnstown, tearing down nearly everything in its path. The city was left in ruins: buildings and homes were destroyed, stunned survivors were stranded on rooftops and fires broke out.

"Then there was nothing left. It was like a beach when it was over. We just stood there and watched it. Everyone was stunned. We didn't know what to do," survivor Elsie Frum, who was 6 years old in 1889, told The Associated Press for a story on the flood's centennial.

There were reports of looting, and some residents formed groups to deputize themselves before the state militia came in two weeks later and took control.

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