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May 25, 2014

New answers to old questions: UPJ researchers use high-tech tools to dig into mysteries of flood

— Shoddy work and compromises during the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club’s reconstruction and maintenance of the former state-owned dam have long been recognized as the primary cause of the South Fork dam’s failure and the devastating flood of 1889.

New work by three UPJ geology researchers shows the dam’s collapse culminated a series of poor decisions, beginning with a situation that is familiar today: State funding shortfalls.

“The original design was good,” researcher Carrie Davis Todd said. “The way the dam was degraded along the way led to the catastrophic failure.”

Flood goes high-tech

Todd, an assistant geology professor at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, and a former UPJ professor, worked with retired professor Uldis Kaktins, adjunct professor Neil Coleman and graduate student Stephanie Wojno of Westmont. All are geologists.

Richard Burkert, president and CEO of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, said UPJ’s is the most in-depth scientific study of the flood in years.

“There has been a great deal of misinformation about the flood,” Kaktins said. “We thought we’d try to clear up a little bit. I think we have.”

The research paper was published last year in an issue of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. Using geographic information system and light detection and ranging technology, the team created new maps of the former Lake Conemaugh and estimated its volume at the time of the 1889 Johnstown Flood.

“LiDAR is an optical remote sensing technique for measuring distances and is used for very detailed mapping,” the research paper said. “It is processed to remove tree canopies, buildings, and other unwanted features to produce a ‘bare earth’ relief map that can be used to create a digital elevation model.”

Wojno oversaw the digital re-creations and said it was exciting to bring the new technology to the study of a historic event.

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