The following editorial appeared in The Tribune-Democrat of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a CNHI newspaper. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Times-News.
The emergency professionals, area waterways officials and many volunteers who responded to Wednesday’s heavy rain and flooding from Hurricane Ida deserve a big thank-you for their focus, professionalism and determination to keep area residents safe.
But those who were falsely reporting that a Johnstown-area dam had broken and that tens of thousands would need to flee for their lives — and those who shared those incorrect and unconfirmed reports across social media — turned a tense situation into one of unnecessary hysteria.
The Tribune-Democrat reported only verified reports from professionals positioned to know — and avoided unfounded rumors, even those called or sent in to our newsroom.
• Here’s what went right on Wednesday:
Thousands of people were evacuated below the Wilmore Dam in Cambria County as a precaution, as flood waters pushed toward the top of that barricade.
Cambria Somerset Authority officials said the dam’s spillway did its job, releasing water as designed to reduce the pressure on the structure.
The Hinckston Run Dam also saw very high water levels on Wednesday.
The CSA monitored the Wilmore Dam — both visually on site and through an electronic monitoring system — as our team reported.
When the waters got within a few feet of the top of the dam, the CSA contacted area emergency management leaders, who executed a safe and orderly evacuation of residents who might be in harm’s way if things got worse — with rain falling at midday Wednesday and with concerns still very real.
The evacuation was only the second in the 20 years that the site has been under the CSA, Chairman Jim Greco told The Tribune-Democrat.
“They decided to take the step to evacuate before we hit that 3-foot level at the spillway, and that’s their call,” Greco said. “It was a good decision.”
Folks from the communities of Wilmore, South Fork and Summerhill were taken to Forest Hills High School, where a temporary shelter was set up — or to St. Bartholomew Catholic Church. Fire departments, CamTran and the school district all helped with the transporting of residents to and from the shelter.
By early evening, with water levels receding, residents were permitted to return to their homes.
Additionally, emergency teams from multiple counties sent out automated messages throughout the day, keeping residents apprised of any potential risk from the hurricane. Those messages included warnings about flooded roadways with cautions to motorists to avoid those risky areas.
Some residents in Patton Borough were evacuated as a precaution to Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church. Many area schools closed early. Fire departments pumped out basements across the region — including in the Windber area, where Emergency Management Coordinator Anson Bloom said crews were busy all day.
It was a challenge, but one that was handled well by area emergency crews.
“There was big cooperation between all the emergency services,” said Summerhill Mayor Eric Miller, who is the manager of Forest Hills Emergency Medical Services.
The same can’t be said about some “news” reports across digital and social media that exacerbated the heightened tension and fears associated with the storm.
Inaccurate information, especially from media outlets outside our region, said a “dam break” had occurred at Wilmore.
One report said more than 40,000 people were being evacuated in the Johnstown area.
Given our local flooding history, such reports got people stirred up and when those reports were shared across social media, the concern turned into irrational — and unnecessary — reactions.
The National Weather Service on Thursday took the blame for issuing a flash-flood alert for Wilmore that included a reference to a dam break — the seed of what became a misinformation frenzy.
The weather service did correctly note that flash-flooding was happening across multiple counties.
Area officials were frustrated with the false information that was circulating — even as they were responding to very real threats and attempting to keep residents informed and safe.
“If any dam would fail in Cambria County, every phone number across the county would be getting an emergency alert about it. It would be a whole different situation we’d be dealing with right now, and there would be alerts to everyone.”
Wednesday was a great day for emergency professionals and volunteers — but not for some entrusted with the great responsibility of providing important and accurate information to the public.