Chapter 6

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from Chapter 6:

Soon, Jerry is on his way back to the house. Marian’s eyes have adjusted to the dark now, and she watches him try to enter the water from the other side of the yard. After moving a few feet into it, he stops. It’s plainly deeper than when he went across the first time, and she realizes the current must have gotten too strong. Slowly, he turns around and trudges back up the hill, and Marian feels a chill move through her.

Jerry comes back with a rope, in which he makes a loop at one end, tying the other to a tree where he stands. He tosses the looped end toward a tree close to his house. It catches on a branch, and he pulls himself along the rope toward it. Holding on to the tree, he pulls in the rope’s slack and yanks the loop off the branch. Then he winds the length once around the trunk and grabs the looped end again.

He kicks off the trunk, giving himself enough momentum to make it back to the door. Tying the end loop tightly around the doorknob, he wades back into the house. Marian is waiting for him at the top of the steps.

We need to get you and the kids out, fast, he says, out of breath.

Prologue

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from the Prologue:

Many Delaware Valley communities, some of the oldest in the country, were changed drastically and forever in less than forty-eight hours. For these communities the flood of 1955 was, in every sense, a watershed event.

Along with washing away tangible parts of these communities’ lives, the flood also sliced through their collective psyche. It cut the decade almost in half, creating a point of reference for everything that would follow. In a way, the flood finished the job that the Second World War had begun. It erased the last vestiges of a slower, quieter way of life that had held on even after America had lost its isolationist naiveté in that global struggle.

Quaint, covered wooden bridges and family-owned country stores were swept away, as if to make room for the modern world of clean-lined steel spans and bustling supermarkets. Some “mom-and-pop” diners along river roads, while digging out of the muck, lost their regular crowds to the novelty of chain establishments. Downtown shopping districts in some larger towns never quite recovered from losing everything.

This is the story of some of these communities. It’s an exploration of the uniquely symbiotic relationship between rivers and river towns, and what happens when the fragile balance of that association is disturbed.

The story offers both an assurance and a warning: that nothing—not winning a war against another human foe, no matter how intimidating; not creating the most destructive weapon on the planet; not even building cities that reach into the heavens—makes any society invulnerable to the caprices of Mother Nature.

Foreword

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from the Foreword:

As Storm Analyst at The Weather Channel, I report on significant weather events every day, including winter nor’easters, spring tornado outbreaks, and autumn hurricane landfalls. Though few affect me directly, I nonetheless feel an uneasy connection as I track these storms: I know what makes them tick and the widespread disruption they potentially bring.

Flooding from Hurricane Floyd in September, 1999 and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 did affect me personally, and they remain the most vivid recent memories on my own weather calendar. Though I did not experience Connie and Diane, I have lived in Conyngham and Warrington, two of the Pennsylvania towns affected by the 1955 floods. I have spoken with individuals in those communities who vividly remember, decades later, those awful August days. And that’s why I’m pleased that Mary Shafer has chosen to tell the story of the Delaware Flood of 1955. It’s these individual stories of heroism and, sadly, tragedy, that remind us of the awesome power of the atmosphere.

Dr. Jon M. Nese
Storm Analyst, The Weather Channel
Former Franklin Institute Chief Meteorologist
Author, 
The Philadelphia Area Weather Book
Atlanta, Georgia
April, 2005

Epilogue

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from the Epilogue:

While the outcry for dams and other huge flood mitigation projects grabs the spotlight in the waning months of 1955, another school of thought is quietly taking hold in less visible parts of the Delaware Valley. In living rooms and around picnic tables, on lunch breaks and in the corners of classrooms, the flood has sparked another kind of conversation.

The jarring experience of the great flood induces introspection in some thoughtful people. It forces them to take a new approach to thinking about waterways. Instead of assigning fault and blame to insentient natural features, this discussion is more interested in applying common sense and claiming personal responsibility for human actions and decisions. Rather than being a divisive debate about who uses what and how they should be compensated, this conversation uses words such as “stewardship” and “conservation” and “interconnection.”

It’s a new conversation, at least among non-academic or –scientific types, that begins exploring ideas about the land, water and sky as parts of a larger, singular organism. It is the extension of a young environmental ethic based on the life work and writings of such pioneers as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olsen and Pennsylvania’s own Gifford Pinchot, and it will give birth in this region to the “watershed way of thinking.”

It’s a still-small voice, but the ears into which it whispers belong to active, energetic and passionate believers. Some come to the idea through a natural extension of their personal beliefs. Others will be yanked in by a huge threat to their ways of life. In the years to come, these people will give the watershed movement a voice with which to be heard. As kites rise against the wind, this voice will begin to soar when it meets the resistance of overwhelming political force.

Chapter 8

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from Chapter 8:

Ed Burnett, a staff writer for the Easton Express, has been at the movies in East Stroudsburg, too. He has lingered a bit longer after the show, talking with friends. By the time he gets on the road to head back to Stroudsburg, the Interborough (State) Bridge is already closed. He and his companion turn about and hurry to the paper mill bridge in Minisink Hills. They cross just as waves are beginning to break over the sides of it.

Once home, he watches McMichael’s Creek rapidly rising at a rate of nearly a foot every fifteen minutes. He’s awestruck to see the gentle streams he played in as a boy turning to deadly, destructive rivers.

Police are running through the streets, blowing their whistles to alert residents to the danger. One of them tells Ed that he could hear cries from treetops near the State Bridge as the water swirled up around them. The cop had also seen a man straddling the street sign at Washington and Brown Streets. Others would later report seeing the man get washed away from his precarious perch.

Chapter 4

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from Chapter 4:

The straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back is that Diane’s movement isn’t following Connie further west over the Alleghenies, as the Weather Bureau had predicted. Instead, she’s under the influence of the unforeseen low pressure now sitting there. The low pushes Diane’s track directly over and parallel to the Delaware Valley itself, assuring that most of her precipitation will be concentrated on the river and its tributaries.

Meteorologists have not yet amassed a long enough track record of hurricane damage data to establish what will later become common knowledge: The majority of hurricane-related deaths are caused by drowning, either in coastal storm surge or during inland flooding due to excessive rainfall. Meteorologists still believe violent winds pose the most danger, and so don’t over-emphasize flooding in their forecasts. This lack of knowledge, added to their unawareness of the approaching low, are two of the final elements setting up the scenario that will lead to Diane’s high toll in death and destruction.

Forecasters can’t react to threats they don’t know about. Without this knowledge, they can’t warn Pocono residents that most of them are sitting at the bottom of natural drainage routes, beneath what is rapidly developing into a kind of inland “perfect storm.”

Chapter 14

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from Chapter 14:

Three-week-old Alan Jackson is in the arms of his mother in the space they’ll call home for the next several weeks. It’s the kindergarten section of the Makefield School, and his older brothers, Robert and Don, are enjoying all the attention their family is getting. The media swarms about, taking pictures of “the youngest flood victim.

They’ll make the papers as a human interest story, having been flooded out of their home just north of the Yardley boat ramp, not far from where Harry Brisco saved his dog. Alan’s parents have no insurance, and won’t be able to afford to bring the house back from its nearly destroyed state.

Alan will grow up in Levittown, far enough from the threatening waters of the Delaware to please his parents. It will also keep him from growing up as a “river kid,” something he’ll come to feel as a loss in his life. He’ll grow up to develop his own relationship with the Delaware, working for the state of Pennsylvania as a bridge inspector. He’ll see other floods on other rivers, some whose winter cargo of huge ice floes wrap deer around trees and strip the bark off for twenty feet above the ground. But it’s the Delaware that will always hold his heart and capture his imagination.

As an adult, Alan will return to the Delaware again and again, rod and reel in hand, and a boat sliding between him and the water. He will contemplate his relationship to this living presence that has shaped his life directly and indirectly. He’ll write a poem about the hold it still exerts on him. It will end not like a poem, but a love letter:

Me and the Delaware River,
Not always seeing eye to eye,
But heritage runs deep and clear,
So the river is where I’ll die.

Chapter 11

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from Chapter 11:

When they’ve moved all they can move, the Scisses decide to take a walk uptown to see how Upper Black Eddy is faring. They walk back along the canal towpath, because it sits higher than most of the surrounding fields. They watch as the fire company evacuates many of the residents. An elderly woman, Mrs. Dotter, refuses to get in the rowboat that the department has maneuvered to her window.

As they watch the ensuing argument, one of their neighbors calls their attention to a chicken coop floating down the river, complete with chickens on its roof. They move closer to see what else is coming down. For quite some time, they watch in awe as sheds, outbuildings and even houses bob in the current until they’re pushed up against the bridge. Then, under the massive, brute force of the onrushing water, they explode in a salvo of snapping studs that sound like gunshots. The pop and tinkle of breaking glass provides a high counterpoint, and a low whoosh of air expelling from enclosed spaces beats a nearly subconscious bass line in the dreadful symphony of destruction.

Lester looks behind them and sees the water beginning to come up from the canal, as well. If it gets too deep, they won’t be able to get back home, so he, Eleanor and their neighbors start back down toward their houses. The water gets gradually deeper until they’re wading waist-deep along the road back toward the river. They realize they’ve foolishly placed themselves in danger of being swept off their feet, and link hands to keep from losing anyone.

Chapter 1

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from Chapter 1:

Bill Coleman knows he’s lucky to be able to plunge into the Delaware’s cooling waters at Camp Pahaquarra almost any time he wants. A river kid all his life, he’d easily passed his swimming test last year, allowing him into the deeper water toward mid-channel. As in most spots on the lazy Delaware, there is a sluggish current there, but nothing even worth thinking about. This river is made for fun, not worry. He loves diving off the floating platform into it, clowning around and yelling with a bunch of his buddies, showing off with the big splash of a cannonball.

He also loves the serenity of the river when he takes a sunset canoe ride. The sky turns yellow, then orange, pink and finally, purple. The humidity concentrates into a haze that creeps over the surface of the water. That’s the magic time, when the camp settles down for stories and toasted marshmallows around the campfires. The smell of wood smoke mingles with the scent of pine and that certain, pleasantly earthy aroma every river person knows as “the river smell.”

As the first evening stars appear in the sky, it turns quiet out on the water. Now, you might be able to hear a whippoorwill beginning its nightly serenade or, if you’re lucky, the slap of a bass on the surface after it rises for the evening’s first flies. All the boys, even those who aren’t the best swimmers, enjoy their proximity to the gentle Delaware.

Author’s Note

Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955

by Mary A. Shafer

Excerpt from the Author’s Note:

I live just a few miles from several of the hardest-hit 1955 flood areas along the Delaware River. In an almost unbelievable twist, another flood of similar but somewhat smaller proportions occurred when the remnants of Hurricane Ivan passed through, just as I was completing my research for this book. As I was finishing the manuscript, an even greater flood occurred on April 3-4, 2005.

Respectively, these crests were the fourth and third highest recorded on the Delaware River to date. My heart goes out to those for whom these more recent deluges caused much loss, trouble and expense. Having talked with some of these people, I found their sense of violation and helplessness enormous, and yet most are choosing to remain “river people.”

My own losses were small, and I must admit—with a certain amount of guilt—that for me as a writer, it provided the kind of timely insight one can’t possibly even hope for. Through this experience, I was able to live for myself many of the emotions and activities previously only described to me secondhand. Especially in dealing with an historical subject, this was tremendously valuable. There is a level of detail and understanding one finds in experiencing such an event that would elude one after the fact, regardless how skilled a researcher or how compassionate a listener one may be.

In an ironic way, the situation has a certain poetic justice. I believe this experience has helped me do a better job of relating the experiences of the ’55 flood’s survivors, and of those who didn’t survive; an effort to which I feel a strong obligation.