Oroville Dam – our Father’s Legacy

It is a huge responsibility, the stewardship of a dam. It has always been so. It is true of dams and levies, of companies and governments. People want accountability and it is a just wish, and one that should be respected.

I have seen this evolution far too many times. When the dam is operating, and the people who live in its shadow want information, they are told that it is none of their business. When they question, they are told that they cannot understand the secrets of those who wear uniforms. When the worst happens, the responsible congregate into a bevy of professionals and bureaucrats, they form committees, insulating any individual from liability, and they placate the masses.

Gone are the days when one man stood forward to give an honest assessment. A panel gives information that has been scoured for admission, or liability-inducing phrases. They take turns talking. There is no apology, no acknowledgement of error. That would show legal weakness. There is no man stepping forward saying “the buck stops here” The buck moves from point to point, until you don’t even understand who’s buck it is. It is an effective methodology. There was a time, when the operator of such a dam would be in a jail, now, looking out through the bars at the gallows being built. The Code of Hamtarabi suggested selling the dam owner to satisfy the costs incurred downstream. (Oh for a simpler time!)

Today people have responsibility, but not actual responsibility, that is assumed by a “joint task force” They put on uniforms with badges and stars. They are, obviously important, unapproachable, perhaps. The responsibility is thus divided and sub-divided until, eventually, you can ignore a responsibility, suffer a failure, and nothing changes. No jobs are lost, no reputation harmed. Everyone moves on but for the people buried in the mud by the river. They do not move on.

I become concerned when engineers “watch”. Engineers are extremely good at watching. They bring in engineers of every discipline, they put on orange or bright yellow vests, they congregate and they watch. They watch the erosion of the primary spillway. They watch the erosion of the emergency spillway. They put up lights so they can see at night. They monitor the inflows, they monitor the outflows, they pontificate the weather patterns. They are so very thorough when the dam is near failure, what filled their days when it was dry? Were they not walking the spillway, sounding for voids, testing the integrity of the elements, grouting, removing the trees from the spillway?

They say things, too. They say that the dam is in no danger, the levies will hold. They say do not listen to those other people who tell you to be concerned. There is no chance of failure. They say that nothing failed. That things are working as they should work. Even that they are unaware of the good men who tried to make them take the steps that would have stopped this evolution of failure (which is not happening, before our eyes). They say the emergency spillway will not be needed, then that it is stable, then that it is about to fail. They say, as they refuse further questions, that they must now go and “protect the people”. It seems that the time for action is in the past. It seems that they had their opportunity to protect, a job that they were charged to do, and instead they watched. Now, again they are watching. We all are watching, old people sleeping in shelters, children, mothers and fathers sisters and brothers – watching.

It takes time. Time is precious and it takes so much of it to repair a dam. I imagine that those who wear yellow vests must reflect on time, time when we could have placed concrete, time when we could have grouted, time when we could have inspected.

There was time a while ago, too, when the moderate storm “Katrina” hit New Orleans. Then, too, men in yellow vests watched. They considered and did math, formed models, but so many died, and they watched in their yellow vests and their hardhats from the banks. They formed committees, they held press conferences. They explained that everything was under control. There is no need to panic. We will be right there to help.

After it was all over, the death, the destruction, the failure of every bureaucratic element of government, they stood, still, watching, monitoring, modeling. Soon the questions came “How could we abandon our brothers?” “How could we let them die?” “Where was the help, so readily promised?”

The committee came forward and they explained. They explained that the plan was flawlessly executed. No one could have foreseen such a storm. (a hurricane on the Gulf Coast). They explained how well they each did, congratulating themselves, and calling them out by name, for recognition. The people who struggled to make a living and who paid their salaries laid in cots in shelters, in squalor. They watched them on televisions. They hid, starving, in the heat of attics. They lie in the mud of the failed levies, their lives ended. There were no gallows, there were no courtrooms, there was no responsibility because there was no failure. It was an act of God. Who are you to question God?

Men built Oroville Dam, then turned their heads and moved on. Our fathers gave us this grand dam, our highways and bridges, our utilities and ports. It is no fault of them, what we have done, or failed to do. Now we have drafted a new reality, one where there is no fault, therefore no responsibility. We have these failures because our grand bureaucracies allow them. We no longer have men speaking out against injustice because of a responsibility to do so, nor quitting jobs because funding no longer allows them to do needed maintenance. The worker is unimportant. The whistleblower is a “conspiracy theorist”. All is tenuous and secret – when the worst happens, it is God’s will.

The great men who toiled on this magnificent structure are mostly gone now. Most have moved on as men are apt to do over time. They are lucky, for a builder is a proud man. A builder is honest, you see labor is a constituent of honor. It is best that they not see, that those old eyes not cry for our failures. They can rest in peace having left such a beautiful thing to humanity. It is good that they do not see how we insult them, how little their gift meant to us, that we turn our backs on it and ignore the blood and sweat and lives spent in this magnificent structure.

Now it is left to the lawyers and the accountants, men with clean nails, to figure out, to calculate the losses. There is no need for the sun-wrinkled men who once built monuments to tomorrow. For, tomorrow has come. It is not as they had seen it. Tomorrow is a place for men with cuff links and uniforms and slick talk, men who have not toiled, different men who have no value of work or workmanship, no respect for grand structures left by our fathers. They manufacture truths in rooms, carefully plotting the dissemination of information.

My father was a builder. Like the grand men who built Oroville Dam. He, too is gone. He too was honorable. I know his words, though he is no longer able to speak them. They live inside of me, telling me right from wrong. I wonder, these men with their vests, what words are harbored in their minds? Do they even understand such things. Perhaps I am a remnant of a different time. Perhaps, in many ways I am like the men who built Oroville. I would be proud to be thought of so. I would be proud to be remembered, too as a builder, a man who told truths, and stacked stones, changing the earth and the future of man.

Scott Cahill

Author: Scott Cahill

Political blogger, construction expert, writer, public speaker, expert witness, sailor, and pilot

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