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.

Download a printable PDF of this review.