November-December 2012

The Oldest Living Hurricane Survivor Tells All

By Ross Altman

Johnston_Flood_filmAuthor’s note: This is a work of fiction based on true events and real songs.

I faked my own death in 1997, at the age of 108; I had begun to be an embarrassment to my family as the oldest living survivor of the Johnstown Flood. Local media would trot me out on the anniversary every May 31, and I would be forced to relive the tawdry details then shuttled back to my studio apartment for another year of tedium. After my apparent demise I changed my name from Frank Shomo to Chester---(after President Arthur, who died soon before I was born) and lived happily and anonymously ever after.

Until now; my health is not what it used to be (I live on yogurt and green tea) but even so I can feel Time’s winged chariot nipping at my heels. So while I still have my faculties I want to get down some of these reminiscences for posterity. In all humility I have led a charmed life, the survivor of not one, not two, nor even three, but six major natural disasters—including Hurricane Sandy. I am sure that I must be a descendant of Noah.

Let me start at the beginning.

Old timers still talk about the Johnstown Flood of 1889—well, only one real old timer still remembers it—that’s me, of Johnstown, Pennsylvania—who just turned 123 years old last August. My mother Doris carried me to safety as a newborn infant, and it is my first childhood memory. I was being breastfed at the time, and as we reached the third floor of our walkup apartment on Front Street I recall splattering my diaper in terror as the rising water splashed against the third floor window.

The water kept rising and my desperate mother kept climbing, up into the attic, where the water rose up to her knees before it stopped inundating our shelter. She plopped me up on her shoulder, soiled diaper and all, and opened the attic window for a better view. Her husband was trapped in their drugstore across the street, and hollered to Doris from the roof: “How’s the baby?” I started crying, and papa breathed a sigh of relief: if I was crying I was still alive.

Not so fortunate were the 2, 209 brave souls who lost their lives in the aftermath. That was the flood that gave birth to the Red Cross as the expeditionary nurse Clara Barton came to Johnstown on June 5, just six days after it hit on May 31, and stayed the rest of the year providing relief to the needy. Most notable to me, as a future musician, were the plethora of songs tunesmiths turned out to document this worst of natural disasters. Joseph Flynn was first on the scene, with The Johnstown Flood:

Johnston_FloodOn a balmy day in May, when nature held full sway,

And the birds sang sweetly in the sky above;

A lovely city lay serene in a valley deep in green,

Where thousands dwelt in happiness and love.

Ah, but soon the scene was changed, for just like a thing deranged,

A storm came crashing through the quiet town;

The wind it raved and shrieked, thunder rolled and lightning streaked,

And the rain it poured in awful torrents down.

Refrain

Then the cry of distress rings from East to West,

And our whole dear country now is plunged in woe;

For the thousands burned and drowned in the city of Johnstown,

All were lost in that great overflow.

Water seemed to follow me throughout my life. I moved to Galveston, Texas at the turn of the 20th Century, just in time for the Galveston Flood to take the lives of more than 8,000 people. Now that was a storm. They didn’t give them names back then; just the town where it happened. These poets and sissy weathermen today make me scoff; always trying to romanticize some little flood or another with a woman’s name. We didn’t have time to waste on such foolishness; we were too busy running. Later on a black street singer made up a song about it—

Galveston_Flood

Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm? 

Wasn’t that a mighty storm in the morning

Wasn’t’ that a mighty storm?

That blew all the people all away.

I kept trying to stay one step ahead of the floodwaters and busted levees, and kept moving. I wound up in Louisiana in 1927, in Plaquemines Parish. The storm of a century came down soon after I arrived, and I still remember some of what happened:

What has happened down here is the wind have changed

Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and rained for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

The river rose all day

The river rose all night

Some people got lost in the flood

Some people got away alright

The river have busted through clear down to Plaquemines

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

I also remember thinking, almost like it was written in a song,

Louisiana_1927_Storm

Louisiana, Louisiana

They're tryin' to wash us away

They're tryin' to wash us away

Louisiana, Louisiana

They're tryin' to wash us away

They're tryin' to wash us away

Randy Newman must have read my mind, because that’s just what he wrote much later on; he called it Louisiana 1927, so it must have been that storm.

I miraculously survived though, and made up my mind there and then to get as far away from Louisiana as I could. I moved out west near the end of 1933, just in time to nearly drown in the fatal New Year’s Flood of 1934. I first heard Woody Guthrie sing a song he made up about that one—The Los Angeles New Year’s Flood. That was even worse than Pennsylvania and Louisiana; I barely got out alive. Woody sang that song all year long as I recall, on the radio too. It went like this:

Oh, my friends, do you remember?

On that fatal New Year's night

The lights of old Los Angeles

Were a flick'ring, Oh, so bright.

A cloud burst hit our city

And it swept away our homes;

It swept away our loved ones

In that fatal New Years flood.

No, you could not see it coming

Till through our town it rolled;

One hundred souls were taken

In that fatal New Years flood.

Los_Angeles_Flood

Whilst we all celebrated

That happy New Year's Eve,

We knew not in the morning

This whole wide world would grieve;

The waters filled our canyons

And down our mountains rolled;

That sad news rocked our nation

As of this flood it told.
No, you could not see it coming

Till through our town it rolled;

One hundred souls were taken

In that fatal New Years flood.

Our highways were blockaded

Our bridges all washed down,

Our houses wrecked and scattered

As the flood came a-rumblin' down;

I bow my head in silence

And I thank my God above

That He did not take my home from me

In that fatal New Year's flood.

No, you could not see it coming

Till through our town it rolled;

One hundred souls were taken

In that fatal New Years flood

Oh, my friends, do you remember?

On that fatal New Year's night

The lights of old Los Angeles

Were a flick'ring, Oh, so bright.

A cloud burst hit our city

And it swept away our homes;

It swept away our loved ones

In that fatal New Years flood.

No, you could not see it coming

Till through our town it rolled;

One hundred souls were taken

In that fatal New Years flood.

As you can see, Woody wasn’t just a Dust Bowl Balladeer; he made up songs about all kinds of natural and manmade disasters. That was a folk singer’s job, he told me.

Having already reached the West Coast, there was no place left to run to, so I made a fateful decision—to reverse course and move back to the southeast and the Gulf Coast; I moved to New Orleans in May of 2005. I found a nice little apartment in the French Quarter—in the 9th Ward, near the home of Fats Domino. Bad timing. I was listening to Fats in a pleasant bistro on Bourbon Street in the evening of August 28, when a light drizzle caught my attention, having neglected to bring my raincoat. Maybe it will quit, I remember thinking; I might as well settle in for the evening. When I came out after midnight I walked into sheets of water rising above the colorful sidewalks, and the next morning I saw boats paddling by with evacuees, including their pets. Well I really stepped into it now, I thought; I wonder what they’re going to call this one.

Just then I heard a passing cop shout the name Katrina to all the bystanders, and urge us to get down to the Superdome, where they were setting up cots for a shelter. The policeman reassured us that FEMA had been notified and would be here any day now. Michael Brown was personally in charge, and President Bush would be flying over New Orleans on his way to a fundraiser in San Diego. Nothing to worry about, folks, the policeman assured us—a fleet of buses is on its way. Must have gotten lost.

“Heckuva job, Brownie,” I heard the President say—just two weeks later, after nearly a thousand people had drowned in the Big Easy. I couldn’t help but be reminded of what I had heard Calvin Coolidge say back in 1927, when like Bush he came to Louisiana to view the devastation from a safe distance:

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train

With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand

The President say, "Little fat man isn't it a shame what the river has done

To this poor crackers land."[Randy Newman, Louisiana 1927]

On the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2006, Bob Dylan released Modern Times, with the song to end all hurricane songs: The Levee’s Gonna Break:

Hurricane_KatrinaIf it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make.

Well, I worked on the levee, Mama, both night and day

I worked on the levee, Mama, both night and day

I got to the river and I threw my clothes away

I paid my time and now I'm good as new,

I paid my time and now I'm as good as new.

They can't take me back unless I want 'em to

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take

I can't stop here I ain't ready to unload

I can't stop here I ain't ready to unload

Riches and salvation can be waiting behind the next bend in the road

I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get

I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get

You say you want me to quit ya, I told ya, 'No, not just yet.' …

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

Some of these people don't know which road to take …

Some people on the road carryin' everything that they own

Some people on the road carryin' everything they own

Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones…

I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed

I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed

I ain't got enough room to even raise my head….

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

If it keep on rainin', the levee gonna break

Some people still sleepin', some people are wide awake

Copyright 2006 Special Rider Music

That does it, I concluded, I’ve had it with New Orleans and every other blasted city out west and down south too; I’m moving back to New York City once and for all. No storm would dare strike Manhattan, I remember thinking, not after 9/11. Lightning never strikes twice in the same place. No need to worry about another hurricane. Or so I thought.

Hurricane_Sandy_NYC

I put on my raincoat, grabbed my umbrella and headed down to the bus depot. I started singing an old Johnny Cash song:

How high’s the water, Mama?

Five feet high and rising.

How high’s the water, Papa?

She said it’s five feet high and rising.

Well, the rails are washed out north of town

We gotta head for higher ground

We can’t come back till the water goes down

Five feet high and rising. Well, it’s five feet high and rising.

So here I am, an old man in Greenwich Village, where I once heard a young Bob Dylan sing a long song he had just written, called A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall... Maybe it’s time to start singing it again. I’d get out of town, but they cancelled my flight.

With apologies to Allan Gurganis.

Ross will be performing in the CTMS final concert from the CTMS Folk Music Center at 16953 Ventura Blvd, Encino, CA 91316 on Saturday evening, December 1, 2012. It is free and open to the public. CTMS would like you to RSVP if you are coming to the concert (with Fur Dixon, Tom Corbett and Susie Glaze) by calling 818-817-7756 or sending an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Include in your message the number of people you will be bringing with you. See

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  

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