The Easton Irregular

A small community newspaper for the Easton, Pennsylvania and Phillipsburg, New Jersey areas says Devastation is “an important book.”

Fifty years ago the much-loved Delaware River was transformed into a raging torrent of destruction and carnage. From August 18 to 20, the river, fed by tributaries swollen by rains from Hurricanes Connie and Diane, washed out bridges, eradicated homes, and caused the deaths of 99 people in the Delaware Valley. While the flood has been the subject of countless articles, Ferndale resident Mary Shafer has written the first comprehensive documentary account of the Flood of ’55. Her book, Devastation on the Delaware, scheduled for release in October, tells the story of the flood through the personal accounts of over 100 survivors.

Shafer, who writes for the Bucks County Herald, first thought she would write a series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of the flood. Realizing how much research would be involved and also recognizing that she had “hit a nerve” after talking to a few people, Shafer “decided a book was definitely the thing to do.” Add to that her interest in weather and in history, and the book was born.

Another motivation for Shafer was the desire to make the flood relevant to modern readers. Mother Nature has helped with that objective, as the floods of 2004 and 2005 have reminded area residents not to be complacent about the Delaware’s capabilities. Shafer wants to remind us that a flood like the one in 1955 could happen again. To that end, she has chosen to write a narrative non-fiction documentary, “to create a very readable account of a tragic disaster, as opposed to a dry historical treatise.”

Using verifiable information like dates, times, locations, relationships, and meteorological data, Shafer tells the story of the flood through the personal accounts of the survivors, making reasonable conjectures when needed, based on personal observations and evidence. She argues that in writing history, there are “things no one can possibly know the details about” and that “we’re all just humans trying our best to tell the most accurate story possible . . . .”

Devastation on the Delaware has three main parts: “The Calm”, “The Storm”, and “The Aftermath.” Four chapters make up “The Calm.” In the first we are introduced to people who live along the river from Matamoras to Upper Black Eddy. Some have grown up there; many are summer tourists. Shafer explains that the Poconos had hundreds of summer “getaways” from church and sports camps to “full-season resorts with all the amenities.” The narrative is heavy with dramatic irony as both resident and tourist look forward to the weekend.

Chapter 2 brings a change in tone, as it is devoted to Hurricane Connie. Shafer explains the “primitive” weather forecasting methods of the 1950’s and their shortcomings. She includes actual weather forecasts and excerpts from newspaper articles predicting Connie’s arrival. The sense of foreboding heightens, especially since we know that Hurricane Diane is forming as Connie drops heavy rain on the area. Between August 11 and 14, for example, Phillipsburg receives 7.28” of rain.

Chapter 3 is an ambitious history of the Delaware River. Shafer goes back to pre-history, before the Delaware was formed, to explain its cycles. In this chapter she develops the reasons why the Flood of ’55 became a record-breaker and why a similar disaster “could, and likely will” happen again. Among them were the lack of strict floodplain zoning; the almost non-existent emergency communications system; the lack of an early warning system as well as the technology to obtain “timely, accurate information” to communicate; and the extensive and rapid development that followed World War II. When Shafer refers to “the amazing amount of permeable soil that has been paved over with concrete and asphalt,” one can’t help but think of the current rate of development in the Delaware Valley and its role in the floods of 2004 and 2005.

Shafer breaks into this fact-filled chapter three times to introduce more “river people,” going about their lives. We, however, are always aware of the calamity that will change their lives and the nature of their communities.

Chapter 4 is devoted to Hurricane Diane. Tension builds with the inclusion of successive weather reports. We are introduced to the people at Camp Davis, a family vacation spot along the Brodhead Creek, and to residents of New Hope and Stockton. The carefree atmosphere at the camp and the pleasures of small town life are juxtaposed with reports of the impending storm. Ironically, the section ends with weather reports downplaying Diane’s impact. The hurricane’s winds have weakened to Category 1. Shafer explains that in the 1950’s “meteorologists still believe violent winds pose the most danger, and so don’t over-emphasize flooding in their forecasts.” This mistaken idea is one of the “final elements setting up the scenario that will lead to Diane’s high toll in death and destruction.”

The major portion of the book is the chronological narrative of the storm beginning with Thursday morning, August 18, and ending with the crest on August 19. These nine chapters transport the reader back to 1955 to relive the storm through the accounts of the survivors. Told in present tense, the narrative recreates the urgency of the events. Again Shafer proves a masterful storyteller by opening with the everyday events in the lives of these people: shopping for a wedding, baking a cake, going to the Warren County Fair. Many are oblivious to the disaster approaching them, but as the rain continues and the waterways rise and overflow their banks, those living near the river and its tributaries realize the seriousness of their situation.

The survivors tell of moving to the the second story, then the attic of their homes, only to have the houses knocked out from under them. Parents give moving accounts of watching in horror as their children are pulled from their arms. Husbands tell of feeling helpless as their wives are carried off before their eyes. A fifteen-year-old struggles to save a man caught in the Delaware’s current. The boy “registers the raw, naked terror” in the man’s eyes as he misses grabbing his hand by inches. The man’s face will stay with the boy for the rest of his life. Most devastating is the loss of Camp Davis. Only six of the 43 people on the grounds when they were washed away will survive.

The section also details the numerous acts of selflessness, of people who die while saving others. We learn of the rescue efforts. We are there as the Scouts and church campers near Erwinna are “evacuated in an unprecedented, 90-minute operation involving more than a dozen aircraft, most of which were helicopters, still a new-fangled vehicle at that time.”

“The Aftermath” begins on Saturday, August 20. We learn about the effects of the storm. In Lambertville, for example, the river crests at 28.5 feet above normal. We learn about the damage to bridges, public services, businesses, and homes. We learn about the massive clean up and disaster relief efforts, especially the enormous contribution of the Mennonite Church. And we learn the fate of those caught in the Flood. The lucky ones are reunited, but dealing with the dead is a large part of the recovery. The descriptions can be grisly. The workers have problems identifying the victims and finding morgue facilities.

Near Bartonsville the owner of Miller’s Butcher Shop allows the Camp Davis victims’ bodies to be stored in his walk in freezer. Bodies will continue to be found, even a year later. Near the end of “The Aftermath” Shafer writes about the rebuilding of the Free Bridge, a topic that will interest readers in the Easton-Phillipsburg area.

The book concludes with an epilogue in which Shafer tells us some of the long-term effects of the Flood. Some people move, but most stay. They continue to love the river. Communities are changed. Some of the railroads, for example, never recover. Most importantly, a dialogue about flood control and responsible water management begins.

Devastation on the Delaware is the culmination of over three years of work. After initial plans for publication fell apart, Shafer decided to self-publish. Jack Opdyke, second-generation owner of H. J. Opdyke Lumber of Frenchtown, NJ, agreed to sponsor the first printing of the book “as a way to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary in business.” Opdyke Lumber “was actually born in the flood,” according to Shafer. Howard Opdyke bought the little that remained of Harry Niece’s lumberyard, which had an estimated $40,000 in damage.

Devastation on the Delaware will be an important book for many Delaware Valley residents. For the survivors who shared their experiences with Shafer, the book will be a “validating experience.” Shafer believes they were “somehow relieved to finally be able to relate their memories to someone who would put it all together, in a form that made sense of all the fragmented accounts they’d heard over the years.” For area natives, it is a record of what may have been the single most life-changing event in the Valley’s history.

For everyone now living here, the book is a reminder of the Delaware’s power and of our inability to control nature. Shafer feels strongly that “people need to think before they build on the river’s floodplain and then to take responsibility for their decisions to live there.” In keeping with this, she is donating fifty cents from every copy of the book sold to the Delaware RiverKeeper Network, “to support their ongoing advocacy on behalf of the Delaware’s environmental health.”

On a final note, any concern about the use of conjecture to fill gaps in the narrative is needless. Exhaustively researched and chockfull of statistics and verifiable facts, the sections where Shafer has improvised ring true. (They are also clearly indicated in italics.)

Instead of reading a dry history, the reader experiences the emotions and activities of this tragic event. In this way, Shafer – and we – honor those who survived as well as those who did not.

Download a printable PDF of this review.