Voting with Your Feet and Living in Johnstown, PA, a City Destroyed by Flood Every Few Decades

October 13th, 2009

I am listening to David McCullough’s fantastic book, The Johnstown Flood, which tells the tragic story of the 1889 flood which destroyed my new hometown of Johnstown. The flood killed over 2,000 people. Check out these pictures. They are horrific.

The geography of Johnstown invites floods. The city is basically a bowl in the Allegheny Mountains, with water flowing from higher altitudes. When the rains break the levees , flooding is inevitable

It should come as no surprise that the 1889 flood was not the only flood. The city flooded again in 1894, 1907, and 1924, 1936, and 1977

A question I asked myself before moving here, is why do people still live here? So why aren’t these people voting with their feet, and getting the heck out of town?

Ilya Somin has produced some fantastic scholarship on voting with your feet. Notions of voting with your feet should not only apply to unfavorable governmental impositions on the populace, but should also apply to unfavorable environmental conditions. Namely, living in a city that gets destroyed by flooding every few decades.

More after the jump.

I consider myself someone who likes to stay dry, and alive, not necessarily in that order. Therefore, when selecting my apartment, I chose a place on top of the mountains, way above the floodplane. Voting with my feet, not slogging with my galoshes.

But why do people still choose to live here despite all of the risks? By all reasonable measures, this city should have no population. Furthermore, the city has been economically distressed for decades, and poverty is rampant (I will leave aside for purposes of this post the influence of Jack Murtha’s largess)

Ilya has written that “voting with your feet” generally benefits the poor more than the relatively affluent – in part because it is much easier for the poor to do it. That would seem to suggest that the Poor Johnstonians would be perfect candidates to skedaddle. Yet, the diehard Johnstown impoverished population sees no reason to move. Something keeps them here. But what? Ilya spoke on a panel at Yale Law School about voting with your feet. One of the other panelists mentioned that voting with your feet is tougher for people who have strong ties to the community. I think this bond, if strong enough, can help a person stay in a town even though the chances of destruction by floods of biblical proportion are high, and the unemployment rate is staggering.

After a month living here, I am beginning understand the locals better. Johnstown natives have such a strong bond to their home and community that the prospect of moving somewhere else, even if it would be objectively safer, does not seem worth it. In order to be considered a true Johnstonian, you need to be at least 3rd generation in Johnstown. The town is so¬† interconnected, that selecting juries is difficult, as inevitably someone called for jury duty knows one of the parties. Everyone went to high school with everyone else, and everyone’s grandparents went to the same church. People who live and work together their entire lives often cannot think of extricating themselves from this naturally hazardous and objectively depressed area.

This kinship seems to overwhelm the rational interest people should have in avoiding floods and seeking better economic conditions. Living in Johnstown is an interesting experience, and stands in stark contrast to my previous home, Washington, DC, where it seems everyone moved their to better the careers, without concern for leaving their homes.