TV Review: Flood in the Desert

American Experience on PBS

“Man must conquer nature” is a quote attributed to Communist leader Mao Zedong. This narrow-minded approach to the natural world should chill a Franciscan heart. William Mulholland (1855-1935), a UK-born, self-taught civil engineer, however, would have likely agreed. His St. Francis Dam in California’s San Francisquito Canyon, finished in 1926 to address Los Angeles’ growing water needs, collapsed on March 12, 1928, killing hundreds. Mulholland ignored one simple truth: Nature will always have the final word.

Flood in the Desert,” American Experience‘s quietly riveting examination of this disaster and its ripple effect generations later, is another impressive addition to the program’s canon of documentaries. And the central message of the film is still applicable to a 21st-century audience.

Just before midnight on March 12, as the St. Francis Dam started to erode, the power across the city of Los Angeles flickered. Mulholland, the mastermind behind the dam’s conception and construction, slept through the electrical hiccup. By morning, some 430 people would be swept away by over 12 billion gallons of water. The precise death count will never be known.

Mulholland came from humble Irish beginnings to amass profound influence in early 20th-century California. His engineering plans for the St. Francis Dam, as much a vanity project as one of necessity, were not peer-reviewed—likely in deference to his power. Mulholland would endure water wars with White settlers in the Owens Valley as well as Northern California’s native Paiute people, whom the colonists displaced. But by 1924, construction on the dam began. Tragedy followed four years later.

“Flood in the Desert” manages to check several boxes in a scant 52 minutes. On the surface, the documentary examines the ingenuity—and blind arrogance—needed to harness an element as formidable as water. But a deeper dive examines how the quest for power always comes at the expense of the powerless. And human-caused disasters aren’t relegated to the history books. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and California’s Camp Fire in 2018 show what little we’ve learned in the following decades.

Mulholland spent the rest of his life in seclusion, reportedly haunted by the tragedy. But he was introspective when questioned about it: “If there is an error of human judgment,” he said, “I am the human.”

documentaries on PBS
  • The rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy has been likened to a Shakespearean tragedy—or comedy—depending on your political persuasion. But under the steady hand of American Experience, the life of the disgraced Wisconsin senator is handled with evenness and authority.
  • First aired in 1993, “Goin’ Back to T-Town examines “Black Wall Street,” a community of thriving Black-owned businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was the site of one of the worst acts of racially inspired domestic terrorism in our nation’s history. This should be required viewing for all Americans.
  • L. Frank Baum created one of the most enduring stories in all of children’s literature with his Oz series, but his own life was no stroll down the yellow brick road. American Experience‘s measured and deeply engrossing exploration of the author’s life is worth a revisit.

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