Review of Floodpath by Jon Wilkman
This story is about a dam collapse in 1928 and the aftermath. The disaster and subsequent investigation are well told and will keep you engaged. I did, however, find some of the background material a little slow. I’m not knocking the book for that. In nonfiction, background information about the people and events is necessary to obtain a fuller picture. It’s just that I almost gave up on this book after a sluggish beginning, and wouldn’t want another reader to make the same mistake. This book is well worth your time.
While some of the early background material was slow, there was a lot of Los Angeles history I found interesting. Even back in 1928, when the population was just a few hundred thousand, city planners foresaw the need for water for both agriculture and its residents. Additionally, a dam and aqueduct could provide additional benefits such as recreation and power generation. Reading about the city’s efforts to acquire land and the additional steps needed to undertake such a massive engineering project bogged down the story in details that probably could have been left out. In fact, I was at the 20% point on my Kindle when I told myself I would give this book one more chapter, and that’s it. Fortunately, the very next chapter dealt with the dam break and subsequent flooding of the valley below.
As it turns out, I had just watched the film San Andrea around the same time I started reading about the dam collapse. One of the opening scenes in that film is the collapse of Hoover Dam. So I had the recent memory of those visuals as the author described the events of March 12, 1928. One big difference, however, between that fictional disaster and the real life disaster was that the St. Francis Dam gave way at night when many residents were asleep and totally unprepared for the danger that was about to befall them. This portion of the book is as compelling as any disaster story you’re likely to read.
As dawn breaks, and the extent of the damage and loss of life is first realized, questions as to the cause of the collapse begins. Was it an earthquake? Was it caused intentionally by dynamite? Or was it an engineering flaw? The chief architect of the dam was William Mulholland, a respected director of the City’s Water Works department. Mulholland is one of the central characters in this story. Did he take shortcuts? Did he make mistakes during the construction of the dam? These questions take up the majority of the story as the issue of liability and legal claims take over.
The book slows down once again as the author covers what seems like every dam collapse since 1928. Still, I found the material interesting. I certainly was unaware of a series of dam collapses in China that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Lastly, I want to comment specifically on the Kindle version of the book. Time after time, Kindle books I read from major publishers lack any effort in the digital conversion. They simply take a PDF file, and that becomes the eBook. Such is not the case with this book. The book Floodpath is a perfect example of a publisher utilizing every benefit an eBook has to offer. Images are placed in context, where you can match the image with the text. Double tapping on an image brings up a popup of the image. Endnotes are easily accessible while reading the text. Want to know more about a particular individual? Tap the person’s name and a popup appears to provide more information. Want to know how long you have to go in a chapter? In the book? That information can be found at the bottom of the screen.
The author is also a documentary filmmaker and is currently working on a documentary on this story. I’m looking forward to watching it.