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Corazón de oro

Paramount Pictures
Dambuilder Hollis Mulwray tells the court he will not build the proposed dam in the 1974 film "Chinatown."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – This planet, this “ball of confusion,” seems to be spinning ever more wildly and increasingly out of control.

In fact, I’m brought back to my January 27, 2017 Dust Devil Dreams post “Ball of confusion” because of something I referenced … the fact that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the “Doomsday Clock” up to “two-and-a-half minutes to midnight,” meaning that with Trump as president, we are that much closer to World War III.

That figure of time – “two-and-a-half minutes” – resonated with me while researching failed dams, and specifically the St. Francis Dam Disaster of 1928, which took nearly 500 lives and happened at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight on March 12, 1928. This disaster is famously referenced (in veiled form) in a key scene in the 1974 film Chinatown where the California Water Wars were being fought. The film takes place in 1937, exactly 80 years ago.

In the film, the character of L.A. Water Authority Commissioner Hollis Mulwray is is based on William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply.

Mulwray is under pressure to build a dam that he is afraid will not be strong enough to hold back the water, to supply the L.A. area, which is on the edge of a desert.

In this court scene, as lead character Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) looks on, Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) begins, by saying: “In case you’ve forgotten gentlemen, over 500 lives were lost when the Vanderlift Dam gave way.”

He continues by saying that the “proposed Alto Vallejo Dam” is a bad idea, saying the shale and bedrock can’t hold the dam up and withstand the pressure of that much water behind it.

“Well, it won’t hold. I won’t build it. It’s that simple. I’m not going to make the same mistake twice,” concludes Mulwray.

Like the character of Mulwray and his dambuilding ways, Mulholland designed and oversaw the construction of the St. Francis Dam, which was built between 1924 and 1926, holding back 12 billion gallons of water, creating a reservoir for the growing city of Los Angeles, 40 miles to the south.

William Mulholland and Commissioner Del Valle in an 80-inch pipe at Power Plant 1 construction in 1916. (Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power)

And while Mulholland was informed of a leak in the dam on March 12, 1928, he did not feel the leak was significant enough to warrant immediate action, as Frank Black of The Pixies notes in his Frank Black and The Catholics song “St. Francis Dam Disaster,” featured on the band’s 2001 album Dog in the Sand. It should be known that singer "Frank Black" was also known as "Black Francis" while in The Pixies. His real name is Charles Thompson.

Between 450 and 1,000 people died in the St. Francis Dam Disaster. With migrant workers living along the river, many were unaccounted for and their bodies washed into the Pacific Ocean, never to be found.

This all occured 88 years and 11 months ago.

“The construction and operation of a great dam should never be left to the sole judgment of one man, no matter how eminent," noted the 1928 coroner’s inquest, following the St. Francis Dam Disaster.

The "tombstone" was all that was left of the St. Francis Dam after it failed in March 1928. (Owens Valley History)

Mulholland would accept blame for the accident. While Mulholland lived, in Chinatown, Mulwray is murdered for standing up to the forces of evil running things in Los Angeles, embodied by the villainous monster Noah Cross (John Huston). 

And so today, Valentine’s Day, we find the Oroville Dam (the tallest dam in the U.S. at 770 feet and opening May 4, 1968) at Lake Oroville (“oro” is gold, in Spanish) in northern California is reaching critical mass as water from rain and snowmelt in the nearby Sierras continues to fill the lake and leading to concerns by officials that “an emergency spillway could fail, sending huge amounts of water into the Feather River, which runs through downtown Oroville, and other waterways, according to the Los Angeles Times.

With more storms heading to California, officials are scrambling to figure out how to hold the water back as more than 100,000 people are evacuated.

The Times story also noted that the emergency spillway has been damaged and that “(s)ome questioned why officials didn’t heed suggestions more than a decade ago to fortify the emergency spillway."

More seriously are rumors (like those I reported on after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with New Orleans residents telling me that the levees were bombed) that the Oroville Dam has been damaged not by Mother Nature's fury, but by deliberately detonated explosives, as this (unsubstantiated and Trumpian blogger) site speculates.

Oroville Dam uses spillway for first time in its history. (

The blogger writes: "There is a very tense situation developing in Northern California that could result in absolute catastrophe. There is nothing the engineers can do, because the hole is 30 feet deep, 100 feet across and 200 feet tall. This will be impossible to fill in only two days, which is approximately how long it will take for the dam to hit 100 percent and start flowing over. I believe it was done intentionally, with explosives but have no proof other than common sense.

Common sense? Seems to be in short supply all around. This reminds me of the conspiracy rumors a few years back that there was some dark plan afoot to blow up Hoover Dam and create a new "9/11"-esque situation through satanic rituals, as noted here.

Synchromystically speaking, it was exactly three years ago today that I posted one of my favorite Dust Devil Dreams posts - "Oh mi corazon," which translates from Spanish as "Oh my heart," a line taken from the 1979 Clash song "Spanish Bombs." This syncs with Valentine's Day and the "heart." And with Oroville (Gold-ville) in the "Golden State" being in the heart of California, I can't help but say "Corazón de oro" or "Golden heart." And one wonders if the dam breaks, the golden "heart" breaks. 


When it comes to Chinatown references in my Dust Devil Dreams posts, "oranges" often come up, as they do with "Arrange the oranges" (Jan. 25, 2015); "Otisburg" (May 11, 2015); and "Orange crush ("Cameron Frye - This one's for you)" (June 17, 2016).

It is the "Otisburg" post from 2015 that caught my eye this time. Back then, the drought in California was particularly bad. I noted it in the post. I also referenced the animated film Rango

Below is what I wrote ... 

"Which brings me to 2011's computer-animated comedy-drama Rango, starring Johnny Depp as the voice of the fish-out-of-water lizard Rango and Ned Beatty as the voice of Tortoise John, the mayor of the thirsty, dusty town of Dirt. 

Echoing Chinatown, Dirt's mayor, sounding and looking like Huston's Noah Cross (although he is a desert tortoise - all the characters are animals), tells this "stranger in town," Rango, that water is the most important thing in Dirt - "The future, Mr. Rango. The future." 

We are back to the future. The future is here.

"Whoever controls the water, controls everything," sneers the Mayor

Read more of my Chinatown analysis in my January 2015 piece "Arrange the oranges."

It was Beatty who played Lex Luthor’s (Gene Hackman) bumbling henchman “Otis” in 1978’s Superman: The Movie. Luthor’s twisted efforts to get a land deal in California – cheap land – was to nuke the San Andreas Fault, thereby leaving countless acres of desert land a new coastline. (More on San Andreas Fault here: "Gates)".

In the film, as Luthor shows off his new map, he is not pleased when he sees Otis has scribbled “Otisburg” on the map. I noted this in my Dust Devil Dreams piece "And I know what's happening ..."

Back in Back to the Future, we find ourselves in an "Otisburg" of sorts, when Marty first hits 88 mph and - via the nuclear power in his DeLorean time machine - suddenly finds himself in a farmer's field, striking a scarecrow and crashing into a barn. This is the farm of Otis Peabody, a pine-tree farmer whose son, Sherman Peabody - reading the Space Zombies from Pluto comic book - convinces him that this radiation-suit wearing humanoid is a malevolent alien. 

Syncing with the future events on September 11, 2001 - Twin Towers to "Faulty tower" - Marty flees this sylvan Otisburg, killing one of the two pine trees on Twin Pines Farm - where the future Twin Pines Mall - later Lone Pine Mall - will be built. "


I'll end with this ... just got the new Son Volt album in the mail, titled Notes of Blue. While working on this piece, I heards singer Jay Farrar, on the song "Lost Souls," sing: "Floods in the middle, droughts in the west / Don't want a world like this / Just pawns in a game of chess / This world won't give us the time ..."


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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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