Unusually warm Atlantic Ocean waters spawn a disastrous hurricane season, causing massive flooding and breaking all-time damage records. Hundreds are dead, many missing, and thousands more left homeless. The Gulf Coast in 2005? No: The Delaware River Valley in 1955. Author Mary Shafer points up eerie similarities between 2005’s catastrophic hurricane season and that of fifty years before. The only comprehensive documentary of 1955's record-setter: Despite 3 recent floods, it's still "the mother of all floods" in the Delaware Valley. Fast-paced narrative nonfiction delivers true-life danger, drama and deadly natural forces caused by twin hurricanes Connie and Diane.
August 18-20, 1955: Three terrifying days and nights still remembered with awe in the Delaware River valley. Record-breaking rainfall from hurricanes Connie and Diane abruptly ended a withering drought, but the relief was short lived. It was soon overshadowed by terror and destruction that tore away bridges and ripped houses from their foundations. From the river’s headwaters in the Catskills and through the Poconos, excessive runoff surged down steep slopes and through valleys on both sides of the river.
Tributaries swelled unbelievably, some rising thirty feet in fifteen minutes. Eventually, they all poured into the Delaware, transforming the usually placid waters into a raging, uncontrollable beast. Mountain resorts were inundated, leaving cars upended in swimming pools. Entire summer camps were washed away. More than 400 children were evacuated by helicopter from island camps in a tense, unprecedented operation.
In the end, nearly a hundred people were dead and hundreds more homeless. Dozens were missing, some ripped, still sleeping, from their beds in the middle of the night. Victims’ bodies were still being recovered thirty years later—some were never found.
Devastation on the Delaware follows the true stories of survivors and eyewitnesses to bring these events to chilling life. More than 100 historical photos and a dozen maps illustrate this definitive account of a tragic event that changed life in the Delaware Valley forever.
In New Britain, the Detwilers are agitated about the water rising in the darkness outside, but they can’t believe the Neshaminy Creek will get much higher. Jerry goes back to reading. Marian, unable to keep still, figures she might as well put the excess energy to use. She decides to make some soup for the weekend.
In the kitchen, she pulls some chicken out of the refrigerator and puts a pot on the stove. By the time she prepares the meat, the water has begun to boil. While the chicken cooks, she dices vegetables. When it’s done cooking, she leaves the pot to cool before putting it back in the fridge. Then she checks on the kids in the playroom.
As she returns to the living room, she and Jerry both hear a trickling noise. They shoot each other a silent glance, then go to investigate. Jerry opens the basement door to find his recent handiwork completely covered again by the creek’s waters. Only this time, they reach clear to the top, and are lapping at nosing on the first step.
Frustrated and shaken, Jerry backs away and softly closes the door. As he turns, Marian appears from around the corner, ashen-faced.
"It’s coming in under the doors," she says quietly.
Jerry sees the fear in her eyes. He goes around with her to check all the doors. Sure enough, chocolate-colored water is seeping onto their floors. It seems absurd to them both, bizarre. Nobody has said a thing to either of them about it ever flooding here before. And now, two weeks in a row?
"What shall we do?" she asks.
He considers for a moment. Last time, it didn’t get this high. How much farther can it go, really?
"Let’s wait a while," he replies. "It
can’t get much higher than this."
Marian agrees, but she doesn’t want the children staying downstairs, just in case. The water isn’t coming in the playroom yet, but it soon might.
"Let’s go upstairs, children," she tells them. "Bring something to play with until bedtime. Mommy and Daddy need to move some things."
So Dick and Susan select a plaything or two and head upstairs with their mother, while Jerry begins rolling up rugs. The water continues to rise as Jerry and Marian scurry to move what furniture will fit up the old, curved farmhouse staircase. Marian's pregnancy
prevents her from helping to lift the heavy things, so most of it stays
where it is.
Suddenly, the lights go out. They realize it could get dangerous downstairs, so after gathering flashlights and candles and putting the
kids in bed, they stay upstairs. Every few minutes, they look down from the top of the stairs to see if the water has progressed any further.
When it reaches four-and-a-half feet with no sign of leveling off, Jerry
decides it’s time to get out.
This popular, glossy magazine for amateur and professional meteorologists found "Devastation on the Delaware" of sufficient merit to give it a full page review!
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 the 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.
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."
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 convveniently 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.
David Laskin, author of "The Children’s Blizzard" and "Braving the Elements"
“In the tradition of Isaac’s Storm and The Johnstown Flood, Mary A. Shafer’s Devastation on the Delaware is a meticulously researched, compellingly written account of a major meteorological catastrophe. The stories of innocent people swept away in raging flood waters—some of them taken by surprise in the middle of the night or carried off while would-be rescuers extended helping hands—will haunt me. The prose is crisp, the photos mesmerizing. Anyone who watches “Storm Stories” on The Weather Channel will find this an electrifying read.