Although Roger Adams and his father Robert never held back floodwaters by sticking their fingers in leaky dikes like Dutch folk heroes, their combined 63 years of continuous service in flood prevention and dam safety was influenced by Johnstown’s history – and had a deep impact across the state.

Roger’s retirement on June 5 from the state’s Bureau of Waterways, Engineering and Wetlands ended 36 years of service, and overlapped his father Robert’s 30-year career with the Department of Environmental Resources, which began in 1957.

“My career sort of began in 1936,” Roger said.

Robert, who was born in 1930 in the Coopersdale section of Johnstown, was affected by the flood wall construction in the years following the March 17, 1936 flood.

“I think he was greatly influenced by the flooding in Johnstown and the flood-control project, as his career was in flood protection,” Roger said.

He witnessed his father’s passion for his job at an early age. “We would stop at (flood prevention) projects in Everett, Connellsville, Confluence, and Johnstown, obviously. Dad talked about engineering quite a bit – things that normal kids probably wouldn’t hear.”

He recounted times when his dad would stop the family car to look at the spillway of Laurel Creek Dam in Mifflin County. 

“He would always say, ‘Hey check out that super-critical flow!’ ”

Roger, who grew up in Dauphin County, made frequent trips to visit family in Johnstown. A particular visit in July 1977 was not so pleasant.

“Dad went into full work mode and spent much of the night there looking at damages from the ’77 flood,” Roger said. 

“Sam’s and Solomon Runs were over-topped and there was obviously a lot of damage.”

He remembered helping at a church in the aftermath of the flood. 

“That had an impact on me,” Roger said, “seeing the devastation and cleaning up the church.”

‘I had “dam” in my name’

Roger knew from early on that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, saying,“I didn’t realize myself that I had ‘dam’ in my name until I had been working for the department for probably 20 years.”

Although he knew he wanted to be an engineer, he wasn’t sure which type he wanted to become, and recalled his father’s advice. 

“He said, ‘You’re too tall to be a mining engineer, so find some other branch of engineering.’ ”

Instead of attending the University of Pittsburgh like his father, Roger earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from West Virginia University and became a government service intern in 1984. He soon acquired a position in the DER’s dam safety program.

Based in Harrisburg, he traveled all over the state.

In 2010, Roger experienced an eerie twist of fate. After attending a routine meeting in Pittsburgh, he decided to spend the night in a hotel in Johnstown to shorten his return trip to Harrisburg the following day. He had interviewed for a position as BWEW’s head of dam safety earlier that month, and while checking his email discovered he had landed the job.

“I thought that was sort of cool being in Johnstown,” he said. “When I looked and saw that my first day was going to be May 31, (the date of the 1889 flood) I just sort of got this shiver down the back of my neck.” 

Hazards and oversight

Just seven years later, Roger became the bureau’s director and was responsible for regulating the state’s 3,400 dams. “That’s quite a few dams,” he said. “About a thousand of those – or about a third – pose some sort of risk to the public and to property.”

Although those dams are structurally sound, Roger said they are nonetheless labeled “high hazard dams” due to the fact that if they would break, there would be a significant loss of life. 

“It really doesn’t speak to the condition of the dam, but rather the hazard potential,” he explained.

Roger said that Johnstown has several dams that fall into that category: Quemahoning, North Fork, Dalton Run, Hinckston Run, Saltlick, Beaverdam Run and Wilmore dams.

When several dams nationwide failed in the 1970s – including the Laurel Run Dam above Tanneryville in 1977 – it raised awareness, leading to the formation of the Nation Dam Safety Program. 

Roger said it was discovered then that the majority of the nation’s 90,000 dams were not federally regulated, and most states did not even have a dam safety program. Pennsylvania was an exception, having had a program since 1913 after the Austin Dam in Potter County failed.

The safety program declared that 210 of the state’s 740 high-hazard dams were unsafe. 

“That sort of stepped up the modern era of dam safety and how we were dealing with this group of unsafe dams,” Roger said.

The Association of State Dam Safety Officials was formed in response to that problem, and Roger began serving on its board in 2014.

Five years later he became president.

1889, 1977 reminders

One of the first things he did as president was hold a board meeting in the Flood Museum in downtown Johnstown.

“That was really a highlight of my career – to host a meeting of dam safety officials from across the country in Johnstown,” Roger said.

He recalled how interested the group was in seeing the plot of graves of unidentified victims from the 1889 flood at Grandview Cemetery.

“As a dam safety professional, it really hits you pretty hard,” Roger said.

“Johnstown has a lot of connections to national dam safety,” he said, adding that it’s not a coincidence that National Dam Safety Day is May 31.

When it comes to loss of life due to a dam failure, he said nothing in the nation’s history compares to the 1889 disaster.

Roger said the association keeps an old copy of The Tribune-Democrat with published names and photos of 1977 flood victims.

“That made an impression on me,” he said. “It’s not just a number. It’s a person. It’s a child. It’s a man or woman. The victims could be anybody.”

From spillway replacement to embankment drainage, Roger said there’s always something to upgrade.

“Dams are aging,” he said. 

“There always will be work to do in dam safety to reduce the risk of failure.”

Since the average lifespan of a dam is 50 years, he said many are currently headed for extensive rehabilitation – and shortcuts are out of the question.

“When it comes to flooding and dams, dams have to be designed to a higher standard than, say, a bridge or a culvert, or even a flood control project,” he said, “because we can’t have a Johnstown Flood occurring.

“Dams are designed for what’s called a ‘probable maximum flood.’ ”

‘Hot spot for flooding’

To arrive at that scenario, Roger said the National Weather Service, as well as private consultants, have assisted in dam designs by offering “probable maximum precipitation” reports. One recent study used statistics gathered from a flood that occurred in McKean County in 1942.

“Smethport holds the world’s record for rainfall in the three-hour event (30 inches), and the four-hour event (32 inches),” he said. “We wanted to look at that Smethport flood, because that flood really controls probable maximum precipitation values for Pennsylvania.”

Roger warned that the Johnstown area is not far behind in factoring that equation. “Unfortunately Johnstown is still – and always was – a hot spot for flooding in Pennsylvania.”

He explained how a particular type of storm can cause “critical” rainfall in the Alleghenies, unlike tropical events that come in from the Atlantic.

“It’s the type of storm that forms in the midwest from moisture from the Gulf (of Mexico), and as it moves east it gets pushed up by the higher elevations until it releases rain along the Appalachian Front,” Roger said.

That variety, which he said caused the 1977 flood, can happen between mid-May and mid-August. 

“It’s that type of storm that controls dam design.”

The bureau’s latest report revealed something unsettling. 

“The Johnstown area is still an area of concern for what we call extreme rainfall events,” he said.

The city’s location at the mouth of the Conemaugh Gap makes it more vulnerable. The Conemaugh Gap is the drainage point for runoff in a 23-mile-wide basin that runs more than 55 miles lengthwise from Carrolltown to Berlin – what Roger called “a one-two punch.”

Although Roger is no longer working in flood prevention and dam safety, the Adams legacy continues in Pennsylvania as Roger’s son Jonathan started his career in 2017 with DEP’s hazardous waste division.

“We still have an Adams in the department,” Rogers said. 

John Rucosky is a photographer for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5055. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRucosky.

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