Friday, August 21, 2015

Book Review: Devastation on the Delaware

Sixty years ago the much-loved Delaware River was transformed into a raging torrent of destruction. From August 18 to 20, the river, fed by tributaries swollen by rains from Hurricanes Connie and Diane, washed out bridges, wiped out homes, and caused the deaths of 99 people in the Delaware Valley.

Bucks County  resident Mary Shafer wrote Devastation on the Delaware, the first comprehensive documentary account of the Flood of '55, for the 50th anniversary of the Flood. She'll be at the Main Library on August 27 for a book talk/signing as the 60th anniversary edition becomes available.

 Northampton Street in front of the Hotel Easton

Shafer first planned to write a series of newspaper articles for the 50th anniversary. When she realized how much research would be involved, she decided a book was the thing to do, especially since she was also interested in weather and history.

Another motivation for Shafer was her desire to make the Flood relevant to today's readers. Mother Nature has helped with that objective, as the floods of 2004 and 2005 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.

Devastation on the Delaware has three main parts: "The Calm," "The Storm," and "The Aftermath." In "The Calm" we're 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 a fun-filled, relaxing weekend.

The tone changes in the second chapter, as it is devoted to Hurricane Connie. Shafer explains the "primitive" weather forecasting methods of the 1950's along with 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 while 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. 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 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're introduced to the people at Camp Davis, a family vacation spot along 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. Hurricane 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 . . . that led 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. We're transported 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. Shafer opens with the everyday activities of these people: shopping for a wedding, baking a cake, going to the Warren County Fair. Most are oblivious to the impending disaster, 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.

 Survivors tell of moving to the second story, then the attic, of their homes, only to have the houses swept out from under them. Parents watch in horror as their children are pulled from their arms. Husbands feel 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. He "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 him for the rest of his life. Most devastating is the loss of Camp Davis. Only six of the 43 people on the grounds will survive.

This section details numerous acts of selflessness, of people who die while saving others. We learn of the rescue efforts. 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, and 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. Descriptions can be grisly. Relief workers have trouble identifying victims and finding morgue facilities. Near Bartonsville the owner of Miller's Butcher Shop allows the bodies of the Camp Davis victims 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 middle span of the Northampton Street Bridge is wiped out 
when debris from the old Portland-Columbia Bridge is swept downriver.

In her epilogue Shafer gets into some of the long-term effects of the Flood. Some people move, but most stay. They 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 more than three years 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 is an important book for many Delaware Valley residents. For the survivors who shared their experiences with Shafer, it's a "validating experience." Shafer believes they were  "somehow relieved to finally be able to relate their memories to someone who could 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's 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 believes strongly  that "people need to think before they build on the river's floodplain and then 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, this is no dry history. Shafer brings the events of this tragic event to chilling life and includes more than 100 historical photos and maps in her book. As was her intent, Mary Shafer has honored those who survived as well as those who did not.

Mary Shafer will be at the Main Library at 7:00 pm on Thursday, August 27, to talk about and share stories of the Flood of '55. The program is free and open to the public. Copies of the 60th Anniversary Edition of Devastation on the Delaware will be available for purchase and signing.

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