Weatherwise

This popular, glossy magazine for amateur and professional meteorologists found Devastation on the Delaware of sufficient merit to give it a full page review!

This review appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Weatherwise Magazine from Heldref Publications.
– Reviewed by Steve Horstmeyer, Weatherwise Contributing Editor

Half a century before the record-setting hurricane season of 2005 brought Katrina, Rita and Wilma to the United States, Connie and Diane hit the East Coast. Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955 is the story of Hurricanes Connie and Diane and the record-setting flood they triggered on the Delaware River.

The tale of destruction is told in more than 400 pages of narrative nonfiction with maps, diagrams, and some 100 historical photographs.

Author Mary A. Shafer deftly sets the stage for the coming disaster, almost making the reader feel the hot, dusty air of early August. While farmers dreamed of crops salvaged from a dry growing season by Connie’s rains, Diane quickly twisted those hopes into nightmares. Shafer writes about real people as they rushed to climb faster than the Delaware’s rising water during 3 terrifying days and nights of August 18-20, 1955.

Shafer does not forget weather fans in her narrative and provides storm data, meteorology (orographic enhancement, the Fujiwara effect, and the Bermuda years), and weather history. Particularly intriguing are the author’s desciptions of the state of meteorological operations in the mid-1950s and the inclusion of actual U.S. Weather Bureau (which is now National Weather Service) bulletins issued as Connie and Diane approached and made landfall.

Shafer’s descriptions of scientific concepts are general but clear, and all are scientifically sound.

There are a couple of items that might confuse the reader. Rainfall maps on pages 12 and 13 show the rainfall total for both storms, a fact that is not immediately apparent. The rainfall total maps for the individual hurricanes on pages 34 and 79 claim to give rainfall totals in milliliters. For meteorological purposes, rainfall is almost never measured using volumetric units, although for hydrological, flood hazard mitigation, and rainfall chemistry sudies, these units are fairly common. Shafer’s source is a series of original hand-drawn maps that were hard to read because of age. The conversion factor to inches is correct for millimeters, and if the mapped values are treated as such, the reader can get the correct figures.

Shafer’s writing is vivid, and like many authors of creative nonfiction, she chose to write about past events in the present tense. From her first sentence – “Friday dawns red, if you can see the sun at all” – Shafer places nearly every historical event in a present-day context. There are a few awkward exceptions to this rule when Shafer employs the past tense for events that occurred before the 1955 flood. The flow of time during the three days and three nights covered in Shafer’s book would have been clearer and easier to read if she had restricted her writing to the present tense.

For this reviewer to recommend a regional weather history book, it must pass three tests: Is the book a valuable source of information for future researchers? Can the weather hobbyist enjoy the work without getting bogged down in local geography and scientific terminology? Is the meteorology, no matter how sparse or general, standing on a sound scientific foundation? For Devastation on the Delaware, the answer to all three questions is yes.

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