Neighboring spirit stood test of time

Forty years later, Blair County still can feel a deep sense of pride in how this county rallied to help Johnstown and other communities impacted by the 1977 flood.

Any friendly rivalries that might have existed between Altoona and Johnstown at that time evaporated, even if only temporarily, as Blair residents, businesses and agencies mounted energy and strengths on behalf of helping the Johnstown region respond to what was an emergency of unbelievable scope.

Many people who were living in the flood-stricken area on the night of the flood and who endured unimaginable dangers followed by years of challenges probably never heard the names of leaders here who mustered all of their talents and their access to resources on behalf of the water-devastated region.

Those flood victims obviously never knew — or ever had time to consider — how many Blair individuals and families helped in so many ways those whose lives were changed forever on that fateful July 19-20 night.

As fate would have it, Blair County escaped devastation — but the potential for such an outcome wasn’t far away.

Cresson, which had seemed immune to flooding because of its topographical altitude, was assaulted by unrelenting, heavy rain and virtually continuous, dangerous lightning for hours.

The railroad underpass just west of what now is the “Old Route 22” intersection with Route 53 was impassable to many vehicles because of the depth of water that had accumulated there. Less than three miles away, water made Route 53 between Cresson and Lilly impassable.

Meanwhile, some homes in other Mainline area communities just a few miles west of the Blair-Cambria County line, such as in Portage, sustained significant damage as a result of the watery barrage that seemed to know no boundaries.

Even the downhill Route 219 between Ebensburg and the South Fork exit about 10 miles south of the Cambria County seat proved a daunting challenge to the few motorists who were on that road while the stormy attack was underway.

More than five hours after the storm began, water moving fiercely across that four-lane highway still was making travel difficult.

And, the lightning was so vivid and continuous that some drivers traveling slowly through the water crossing the roadway had to slow their vehicles to a crawl because of bouts with temporary blindness due to the lightning’s brightness.

Fortunately, Blair County escaped but chose not to react just with a sigh of relief. What resulted was a mobilization of flood-relief efforts that exposed Altoona and Blair County as a caring community of magnanimous proportion.

And, only a few days passed before Altoona made another great, short-notice gesture outside the actual realm of flood relief, agreeing to substitute for Johnstown as host of August’s All-American Amateur Baseball Association national tournament.

“Let’s Get The Mud Out” and “We’re Wet But Not Washed Out” were slogans on T-shirts that emerged shortly after the disaster. They showed Johnstown’s determination to rebound. But recovery would have gotten off to a slower start without Blair County’s immediate mobilization on its stricken neighbor’s behalf.

Thankfully, the compassion and generosity exhibited in 1977 still live here, if they’re ever needed.

The passage of 40 years hasn’t undermined that goodness.