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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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.

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Easton Express Times

The newspaper of note in the Easton, Pennsylvania area found the book a “skillful interweaving of scientific data, media and personal accounts.”

This review appeared in the April 2, 2006 issue of the Express-Times.
– Reviewed by Barrie-John Murphy, a regular contributor to the Express-Times

Author tells of tension along river

Reading Mary Shafer’s Devastation on the Delaware ($19.95, Word Forge Books) dredged up some painful memories.

I recall the floods of 2004 and 2005 vividly and the muddy calling card the river left in my Kintnersville home; returning to a dark, skeletal downstairs after work, and months of being without an oven.

Months later, I dread the appearance of a hurricane, however distant, and anxiously look across Route 611 during periods of heavy rain. But I had time to move furniture, the choice to leave. Many of the poor souls in 1955 didn’t know what hit them, and when they did, it was too late.

Skillfully interweaving scientific data, media and personal accounts, Shafer shows a region largely unaware — and unprepared for — the impending disaster.

The 1955 flood was the unlikely union of two hurricanes: Connie and Diane. While Connie brought many creeks and rivers back up to their banks after a long drought, it was Diane’s rains that unleashed a torrent of water to devastating effect.

Though there are many, perhaps the most horrific account is of the inhabitants at Camp Davis in the Poconos. Dimly aware of the danger, many sought shelter in a house near the Brodhead Creek, unaware of the wall of debris that was to smash into the building and send many of them plunging to their deaths in the black, raging waters.

Shafer is a master at building tension, cutting in and out of accounts, leaving us wondering whether individuals will make it to higher ground, or be taken by the current. And amid the sense of doom and gloom there is hope and humor. The legions of helpers descending on the beleaguered river towns, the husband in Bucks County asking his wife when’s the last time she cleaned the mud-covered floor.

Shafer doesn’t propose any fixes, and I’m not sure there are any. Long after memories of 1955, 2004 and 2005 have receded, people will continue to live along the river, some oblivious, others respectful of its awesome power.

Devastation on the Delaware is available at area stores and retailers. For more information, go to 55flood.com.

Download a printable PDF of this review.

Delaware Valley News

A popular community newspaper on the New Jersey side of the river Flood of ’55 book engrosses, educates

This review appeared in the December 1, 2005 issue of the Delaware Valley News.
– Reviewed by Betty Orlemann, author of The Hattie Farwell Mystery Series of novels and longtime DelVal journalist.

Every time the Delaware River floods you’re sure to hear, “This one is not as bad as the Flood of 1955.”

We weren’t living near the river in 1955, and I really didn’t know a lot about that flood. When we moved to Smithtown in Tinicum Township in 1977 we didn’t hear a great deal about the flood. Apparently most people had put it out of their minds. Not far from our home, there was a Flood of ’55 high-water mark painted on rocks on the west side of River Road. It is still there.

As I started writing about the canal and the people who had worked on it, I did hear some scary stories about people who had lost their homes. I also saw photos of washed-out roads and canal sections. I heard that children had been evacuated by helicopter from islands in the Delaware River.

One woman whose home above Point Pleasant backed toward the canal and river but was some distance away from them, told me that she awakened to beautiful sunny skies after the storms passed. When she went to her window she was shocked to find her property completely surrounded by floodwaters.

I never was able to find a definitive history of the flood until last week when I bought a new book by Mary A. Shafer, Devastation on the Delaware. The book is fascinating and extremely well written. I truly could hardly put it down. The book is based upon the stories of people affected by the flood. I had previously learned that the flood started in the Poconos, but I never knew to what extent towns and camps in the mountains were devastated until I read this book.

Mary Shafer lives in Ferndale. She has a background in publishing and self-published Devasation on the Delaware. Although we both write articles for a Bucks County newspaper, we had never met and I thought it was time to remedy that, so I picked up the phone and called her.

She told me that she spent three years researching Devastation. She admitted that if she ahd known what she was getting herself into, she might have abandoned the project!

I was not surprised to hear tha she cares a lot about people. The book is personal in its compassion. Mary has written it in a fictional format, but the events, of course, are true. I felt myself drawn to the people who never believed that the gentle Delaware River or its tributaries could possibly spill over into their cabins or houses.

Even as the rivers and tributaries topped their banks, wiping out bridges, destroying buildings and taking the lives of more than 70 men, womena and children, other people were blissfully unaware of the tragedy all around them until it was too late.

Of course it was fascinating to read about people I know. It was also interesting to learn just what happened along our stretch of the river.

I’m not going to tell you anymore about the book. Go buy it for yourself. It is sold at The Book Garden on Bridge Street in Frenchtown and at the Bookshop on Main Street in Doylestown.

Download a printable PDF of this review.

AMS Newsletter

The newsletter of the American Meteorological Society thinks the book is “a marvelous job recounting the hours and days leading up to the region’s greatest disaster.”

This review appeared in the July 2006 issue of the AMS Bulletin from The American Meteorological Society.
– Reviewed by Ben Gelber, author of Pocono Weather and The Pennsylvania Weather Book, and on-air meteorologist at Columbus, Ohio’s WCMH-TV/NBC4.

In 1954, three major hurricanes struck the eastern seaboard (Carol, Edna and Hazel), leaving behind widespread destruction and loss of life. At the time, it was the costliest hurricane season on record in the United States—until 1955.

After the devastating 1954 hurricane season, Congress allotted a record $571,000 budget to the U.S. Weather bureau to improve hurricane tracking, including establishing a network of monitoring stations equipped with radar units to be installed at Caribbean and East Coast sites. Computer-generated analog models were still in their infancy and satellite images of burgeoning tropical systems would not arrive unti the early 1960s.

A prominent westward extension of the Bermuda high in the summer of 1955 fostered a record-setting scorching heat throughout the eastern United States. Scant rainfall caused crops to wither and reservoirs and wells dropped to precariously low levels. The best opportunity for drought-busting rains would have to come from a tropical system.

On the evening of 3 August 1955, the author notes that Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist at the Weather Bureau on Galveston Island who had tragically underestimated the devastating force of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, died within hours of the Weather Bureau’s first advisory on Tropical Storm Connie, located “about 50 miles east of the Guadaloupe French Indies.”

Shafer’s book, Devastation on the Delaware, is conveniently divided into three main sections: “The Calm,” “The Storm,” and “The Aftermath. ” In the first chapter, we meet residents of resort communities and small towns along the Delaware River, which forms the border between eastern Pennsylvania, southeastern New York, and New Jersey.

Chapter 2 describes the arrival of Hurricane Connie near Morehead City, North Carolina, early on 12 August as a Category 3 hurricane. The remnanats of Connie deposited 4-11 inches of rain on eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New Yourk City, swamping urban centers but providing beneficial rains for parched soils.

Chapter 3 steps back to offer a wider view of the landscape, offering a brief geological and geographical history of the Delaware Valley and a brief summary of past floods. Shafer writes about the “explosion of development” that would ultimately worsen the risk of subsequent flooding in the region. She also sketches the lives of river folks residing complacently along the tributaries of the Delaware River, intiiating a chronological narrative that humanizes the forthcoming sequence of meteorological events.

In Chapter 4, we pick up the story of Connie’s weaker sister storm, Diane, making landfall on 17 August 1955 near Wilmington, North Carolina, with expectations the storm would break up over the Appalachians. Instead, the storm turned northeast.

The author describes Diane as “initially the more powerful” of the twin hurricanes, with a central low pressure of 28.02 inches, listed as the 31st most intense hurricane (1900-2004) to reach U.S. land. However, Hurricane Diane’s highest estimated winds (125 mph) at sea never matched Connie’s peak intensity (145 mph), and Diane actually came ashore as a comparatively weak Category 1 storm with a peak wind gust of 86 mph and a low pressure reading of 29.13 inches at Wilmington, North Carolina.

The confusion arises because it was Hurricane Diana that struck the same section of North Carolina on 12 September 1984 as a Category 3 storm (28.02 inches), packing sustained winds of 130 mph. The discrepancy may have resulted from a NOAA Technical Memorandum citation (Jarrell et al. 2001) for the period 1900-2000 (not 1900-2004, as stated in the book). Corrected in Jarrell at al. (2004), it should also be noted that Connie then drops out of the top-60 list of most intense hurricanes for the period 1900-2004.

The watery remains of Diane lurched north on 18 August 1955, unleashing another round of torrential rains over eastern Pennsylvania, the bulk of which (6-8 inches) fell in about eight hours. The torrent of water pouring down on sodden hillsides still saturated from Connie would set the stage for catastrophic flooding along the Delaware River valley that would ultimately claim about 100 lives. (A similar tragedy unfolded the next day in southern New England, causing at least 82 more fatalities.)

In Chapters 5 through 13, the author skillfully weaves survivor stories gleaned from interviews of more than 100 victims who lived through the horrors of the hurricane floods of 1955, including those introduced to us in “The Calm” portion of the book. The victims were unaware of the massive wall of water building upstream along mountain tributaries of the Delaware that would converge on the lowlands with tragic consequences.

Along Brodhead Creek, a world-famous trout stream wending its way through resort communities and campgrounds, the debris-choked waters rose more than 20 feet in a half-hour as dams collapsed, washing away Camp Davis and taking the live of 38 mostly young campers in the dark of night. A few miles downstream, 32 residents of East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, would perish in the thunderous surge of rushing water.

“The Aftermath” picks up the tragic pieces on 20 August 1955, as the floodwaters receded. The final two chapters describe the lasting effects of the flood on survivors and their families. Gruesome discoveries of bloated bodies are mixed with tales of remarkable courage and the stories of vitims clinging to trees and rooftops through the night, waiting to be rescued by Navy, Marine and commercial helicopter pilots. Families separated in flood-ravaged communitites are tearfully reunited. Survivors are overcome with emotion recalling the monumental tragedy that exceeded anyone’s expectations.

In the epilogue, Shafer’s book concludes with a history of private and government flood-control projects that ultimately spared the region from a disastrous repeat following the one-two punch of the remnants of Frances and iIvan in September 2004, and the Spring Flood of April 2005—both of which raised water levels to depths within several feet of the high-water marks recorded in August 1955.

Fourteen tables, including appendices with lists of hurricane-intensity records, and more than 100 historical photographs provide a perspective of the worst flood in modern history along the Delaware River Basin in eastern Pennsylvania and adjoining areas.

A few minor text corrections are worth noting: “Mount Kittatinny” (p. 8) is actually Kittatinny Mountain; the flood of January 5, 1862″ occurred on 5 June; and the legends of the rainfall maps (pp. 12-13) depicting 15- and 20-inch increments are too high, though the maps on pages 34 and 79, respectively, show correct rainfall totals for Connie and Diane.

Although I was born after the flood, I visited all the high-water markers in my hometown in the Pocono Mountains and listened intently to thte haunting stories told by teachers, neighbors, and family friends. I believe that the author of this book has done a marvelous job recounting the days and hours leading up to the region’s greatest disaster, mostly through the eyes of those who witnessed the terrible events of August 1955.

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Amazon.com

A Top 500 Reviewer at the monster online retailer found the book “riveting.”

This review was posted in June 2006 at amazon.com.
– Reviewed by Paul Tognetti , an amazon.com Top 500 Reviewer.

Riveting account of the historic flood of August 1955 that would change life in the Poconos forever.

When I read a book about a natural disaster I cannot help but wonder how I might react in such a situation. As the new day dawned on August 18, 1955 folks in the Delaware Valley had absolutely no reason to believe that this day would be substantially different from any other. And yet, an unlikely series of weather events would unfold over the next 72 hours that would severely test the mettle of just about everyone in the region.

In Devastation On The Delaware author Mary Shafer chronicles the heartbreaking events of those three days in August 1955. More than one hundred people would lose their lives. Some of the victims would not be found until months or years later. And those lucky enough to survive would quickly discover that for them life would never be the same. It is hard to imagine the utter devastation that took place.

Many residents lost just about everything they owned. Houses were literally torn off their foundations and ripped to shreds and two ton automobiles were tossed about like childrens toys. In many of these communities the raging waters damaged or destroyed most of the infrastructure. All along the Delaware the bridges that were vital links in the lives of so many people were laid waste and many would never be rebuilt. All over the Delaware Valley mom and pop businesses would be wiped out forever and scores of people would find themselves unemployed in the immediate aftermath as the water inundated manufacturing plants, retail stores and tourist attractions.

Mary Shafer does an outstanding job of conveying the full scope of the problems and emotions these people were forced to deal with during those tumultuous days. Devastation on the Delaware also chronicles how government officials, private businesses and so many ordinary people managed to rise to the occasion and assist with the recovery effort.

Interspersed throughout the book are dozens of gut-wrenching black and white photographs that really help to illustrate the story that Mary Shafer is trying to tell. Many of these photos are from the private collections of those who lived through the tragedy but somehow had the presence of mind to record these events on film for posterity.

Even though I am not from the immediate area I must say that I found Devastation on the Delaware to be quite compelling reading. It compares favorably to other outstanding books I have read on the subject of hurricanes such as “Sudden Sea,” “Black Cloud” and “The Great Hurricane: 1938.” And for those who hail from the Delaware Valley this book will serve future generations as an important piece of regional history that will be a fixture in local libraries for decades to come.

A wonderful book by a very gifted writer. Highly recommended!!

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