Author Q&A

with Mary A. Shafer

What interested you in writing the story of the 1955 flood in the Delaware Valley?
Back in 1999, a few years after I’d moved back to Pennsylvania from the Midwest, I picked up a copy of Diane Drowns Delaware Valley, the photo essay booklet published by the Easton Express about a week after the flood. Having been to visit the Bucks area for more than 15 years, I was amazed I’d never heard anything about the flood. I was amazed that such a huge event wasn’t more well known or talked about now.

In 2002, I thought of it again, and phoned my editor at the Bucks County Herald about the possibility of writing a multi-part series of articles about the flood for the paper when the 50th anniversary rolled around in 2005. She was enthusiastic about the idea, so I decided to begin the research. Hanging up, I thought, “What the heck did I just do? Now I have to do all that research for just a few articles!” It seemed like a lot of effort for such a small project, so I figured I might as well write a book about it.

What kind of reaction did you get when you told people you’d be writing this book?
I spoke with quite a few people about the possibility. Without exception, everyone was very supportive of the idea. Some people got quite excited, saying they were surprised no one had written a book about the flood before. They were very eager to talk about it. I realized I’d hit a nerve with the topic, and decided a book was definitely the thing to do.

You’re not a native of Bucks County, though. Why the interest in an event that happened before you were even born, in a place where you don’t have roots?
I don’t have roots in Bucks County, but I do have roots in Pennsylvania. I was born in Lancaster and spent much of my childhood in the south-central part of the state. The Juniata River and its tributaries figure heavily into a lot of my growing up, and I think rivers and waterways kind of get into your blood, figuratively. I don’t consider myself a full-on “river person,” but I certainly understand those who do. That was part of it.

It also has to do with the fact that I’m a “weather weenie.” I’m fascinated with anything involving severe or extreme weather, and this story certainly fits the bill.

The other motivation is that it’s a historical event that still has very real repercussions today. (Of course, I couldn’t have known when I began the research just HOW relevant it would become!) I’m a huge history buff. There’s nothing more interesting to research and write about than history that’s so easy to bring alive, because people can still relate to it.

Is that your goal with this book, to make history more relevant to modern life?
Absolutely. Since I started writing books back in 1991, that’s been one of my main motivations. I believe if all historians—especially history teachers—made a strong effort to teach students how the past relates to their daily lives now, more people would be good history students. They’d pay more attention to history, because it would feel like it’s actually relevant to our lives now, which it is.

Why do you feel this is important?
I think it’s critical — especially in a time such as ours, when the world is in such social, religious and political turmoil — that we pay attention to lessons of the past. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes we should already have learned from. Unfortunately, too many history instructors just present a dry list of names, dates and facts that leave us cold. It’s a real turn-off, even for those who might otherwise be interested. So it’s up to writers and filmmakers to engage the public imagination about history.

So, you think others share this belief of yours, and are doing something about it?
Definitely. David Attenborough has navigated the worlds of film and literary historical treatments with much success. Late author/historian Steven Ambrose, however flawed his research process may have been, did so much for this cause. Aside from authoring some of the most popular history books ever, he was responsible for establishing the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, as well as founding the National D-Day Museum, which opened in 2000. Michael Shaara and the late, great Shelby Foote produced work on the American Civil War that communicates the passion that brought them to the material in the first place.

I’m particularly cheered to see the quality of work being done by other masters of the film media in the historical genre. I believe Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” series represents a landmark in historical storytelling, one that changed the way Americans think about history.

Subsequent work by Ken and his brother, Ric, have paved the way for more mainstream historical treatments like “Gods and Generals” and Steven Spielberg’s foray into WWII with “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers.” Everyone with an interest in history owes a great debt to the Burns brothers. They made it cool to care about history again.

How long did it take you to complete Devastation on the Delaware?
From the time I got serious about the idea until the book went to press was a little more than three years. Of course, I didn’t work on it full time, because I have a business to run. But it took the majority of what would have been my free time over that period.

What was the best part of this project for you?
The tremendous response I got from people who lived through the event. It became clear as I interviewed more and more people (eventually more than a hundred) that they had wanted to tell their stories. Many were very direct, telling me that knowing my book would be published was a validating experience for them. Many of these folks were still fairly young when the flood happened, and it affected them in many ways, some for the rest of their lives. That someone who wasn’t there for the actual event felt it was important enough to write about helped them feel their struggles have been acknowledged. For an author, that’s a powerful motivator to do a good job, as well as a confidence booster.

I also enjoyed the time I spent listening to people’s memories. Almost everyone I spoke to was at least in his or her sixties, and more than a few were in their eighties. Their stories were not only interesting, but reminded me what a treasure we have in our older citizens. They are such vaults of information that is being lost with their passing, and I feel good that my book is doing some small part to preserve some of their wisdom, and is contributing to the record of our shared experiences.

What was most difficult about the process?
Technically, it was the fact that so many official accounts of the flood contradict each other. That made for a great deal more research than I would otherwise have needed to do. When you have so many glaring inconsistencies in media coverage and government records, you really have to dig to find reliable cross-references. And sometimes, you don’t get the luxury of knowing for sure. You just have to give it your best shot in drawing the most logical conclusions from scraps of information.

Another technical challenge was having limited time available to research the vast geographic area the story covers. If there’s one thing I’d change about the work, it would be that I’d start earlier so I could cover more of the area more thoroughly. Both sides of the main stem Delaware from Port Jervis to Trenton is a lot of physical ground to cover, even in three years.

There’s a good deal of tragedy in this narrative. Was that difficult to write about?
Emotionally, this would have been a difficult story to tell in any circumstances, because it contains so much loss of life and property, especially in Pennsylvania. This process was doubly hard for me, because my mother passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly as I was beginning to write the first draft. Now that I’m on the other side of that very personal tragedy, I have to say I’m amazed I was able to complete the manuscript. There were many days I was so emotionally upset and drained and distracted, I thought I just couldn’t do it…but somehow, I did. I wouldn’t have wished to find out in this way, but it’s good to know that when you have to just grit your teeth and get through something, you’re up to the task. There’s a certain quiet satisfaction in that.

Could a record-setting flood like 1955 happen again on the Delaware River?
Not only could it, but it will. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

I realize this is sad news for those who have twice been inundated by the river in the past two years, but even without a degree in science or meteorology, people can clearly see an ongoing increase in the frequency and severity of tropical storms in the Atlantic. The Delaware Valley lies squarely in the area of influence for those storms that track along the eastern seaboard. They’re not that uncommon, and a one-two punch like that of Hurricanes Connie and Diane in ’55 was repeated as recently as last year with Katrina and Rita. That it didn’t happen here again is simply a matter of statistical odds. Eventually, it will happen here again, and I believe it will likely be worse than ’55.

Why would a new record-setting Delaware River flood be worse?
Because even with flood control measures now in place on tributaries like the Brodhead Creek near the Water Gap (which were the worst killers in 1955), recent flooding shows that the river takes less overall volume to reach flood stage. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the river gauge at the bridge in Riegelsville, PA showed a reading at the height of the flood that equalled 84% of the flood crest from Diane. Yet the amount of rainfall that caused this crest was only 63% of that during Diane — and this was even without a deluge like Connie coming along beforehand. There’s only one difference between now and then: The amount of non-permeable surface in the Delaware Watershed has increased with the paved surfaces from rampant development.

The truly frightening aspect of this reality isn’t just the prospects for flooding. All that water running off into the river instead of sinking into the ground where it falls is a predictor of serious water shortages in the not-too-distant future. 12-20 years from now, when that water would have reached and recharged the aquifer, we’re going to have serious problem. During periods of sustained drought, wells will go dry because the rain falling now will have run off into the river and been carried away, instead of being unable to soak into the ground. It’s a chilling thought.

What do you most want people to take away from Devastation on the Delaware?
Respect for the river, for its power and strength. Also, respect for nature and our inability to tame it. Some people find it frightening that we can’t control the weather. I find it comforting. Most of the time, the weather is fairly predictable, if only insofar as we can figure out when to stay out of its way. But mankind has a tendency to immediately start fooling around with anything we can control, and it’s rare that we don’t screw something up badly and permanently, or try to use it as some kind of weapon. I hope we never gain the ability to control the weather.

Do you mean to say that, even if we could save all the suffering and property loss that comes with flooding and other violent weather, you wouldn’t want us to take advantage of that?
The issue is so much bigger than loss of property, but yes, that’s what I’m saying. I have as much compassion for the suffering of my fellow man — and our brethren of other species, for that matter — whether the cause is natural or man-made. But simply being ABLE to control the weather will never guarantee that we won’t abuse or misuse it, and I find those possibilities much more frightening than the effects of extreme weather.

There’s also the issue of people just making really bad choices without any justification. I have a limited amount of compassion for people who knowingly make foolish decisions and then expect the rest of us to bail them out when those decisions get them in trouble. There is no reason, in this age of widely available information, why anyone should be building their home or business in a floodplain. None. And yet they do.

But isn’t this really about playing the law of averages? Is the possibility of severe flooding high enough to be worth denying people the ability to live in the floodplain?
It’s human nature to suffer from “it won’t happen to me” syndrome. To some extent, we all do it. But that’s what laws are for: to protect us from ourselves. Laws exist for those who have little or no common sense (which, by the way, is the least common thing I know of). And some communities have taken it upon themselves to create zoning ordinances that require people to either stay out of the floodplain or to build flood-resistant structures. Yet even these communities often don’t enforce their own legislation, either because it’s too much work or they’re too frightened of the political consequences. Others simply lack the will to fight the constant clamor from builders and real estate agents to open more land for development.

And so we all suffer the consequences. Until the public refuses to pay higher taxes and insurance premiums to accommodate the few who believe it is somehow their right to locate in a floodplain, it will continue.

Theoretically, the only people who should be allowed to live and work in a floodplain are those who can prove they have the financial wherewithal to replace their homes and possessions and businesses without any help from the government or insurance companies. But that would be unfair and unwise, since it would only reinforce the class divisions already endangering this country’s stability. So, the law should be “no building in the floodplain, period.” What’s already there should be grandfathered, but once a building is compromised by floodwater, that’s it. No more habitation, end of discussion.

So you think the people of New Orleans shouldn’t be allowed to rebuild?
From a compassionate perspective, my heart goes out to those who lost their homes and possessions in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But from a common sense point of view, no, I don’t think it’s a good idea to rebuild most of those places. It’s senseless, really. And doubly so in this particular case, because not only are they planning on rebuilding in a known and proven area of massive flood danger, but they’re doing it without further reinforcing the levee structures to withstand Category 5 storms. And I’d venture that most folks aren’t talking about relocating the city, but rebuilding as it was. Um, hello?

I mean, let’s look at this: Same location (dangerous), no new structures other than what previously existed (inadequate), no reinforcement planned so far to make existing structures stronger (stupid). Over the long-term, those levees have already proven incapable of withstanding even the Category 3 storms they were designed for. Expecting them to withstand another Cat 5 is just plain stupid! And there WILL be another Cat 5 in the Gulf. I realize that, from an emotional standpoint, this is a tough call. But that’s what government officials are paid to do: make the responsible, sane choices. I think most of our country suffers from a pathetic lack of leaders willing to carry out their sworn duties, and this disaster is how such abandonment is manifesting.

What about those who don’t have much choice?
If you’re referring to poor people, I don’t think putting them back in harm’s way is either prudent or responsible. It’s reckless, and shows a patent disregard for the value of their lives. It’s time to make better choices and be more creative in our approach to solving the housing problem of thousands of people without the means to fund better choices for themselves. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting a different outcome. Putting those people back in harm’s way is insane.

If people can’t afford to rebuild elsewhere, we all need to demand that provision be made for safe, adequate (not fancy) housing in a logical location for them. As a civilized society, it’s incumbent upon us to help those who cannot help themselves, but we need to help them in a way that makes sense for everyone.

I think the government really missed the boat (no pun intended) after Katrina. Habitat for Humanity is a fantastic group that uses sound fiscal management, efficient and sustainable building practices and the logical, rational concept of sweat equity to provide such housing for those who need it. This organization has the infrastructure in place to deliver the materials and manpower required to get started. That infrastructure could be built upon with the money now being used to provide sub-standard housing or being wasted on locating trailers where no one needs them. The masses of people who remain unemployed because their workplaces were washed away could have their dignity and a sense of purpose returned to their lives, along with decent, safe housing, if they could participate in such a program as Habitat implements, but on a grander scale than usual.

The problem is that such an effort would require local, state and federal governments could stop pointing fingers long enough to make a plan and make it happen. And the only way that is going to happen is for all of us to take to the streets, demanding it. Sadly, I just don’t see enough people caring enough to do that. I comment further on this topic on my blog, “Floods Happen. Deal With It.”

What’s your next project?
First, a long rest and some quality time with my family and friends. Then, I’m thinking about using some of the material that didn’t fit in the book to create a companion CD-ROM or DVD version of the flood story. I do have some film footage, even some in color, and I have hours and hours of recorded interviews that I think might make interesting listening. Some of it is very candid, and would fly in such a format, where it wouldn’t have been appropriate in the book. Anyone interested in following the progress of such a project can monitor updates to this website.