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Fierce Weather and a Legacy of Loss

My guest blogger has documented a community's experience of a devastating flood.

Chopper removing bodies.

I met Mary Shafer at a booksigning and learned that, like myself, she's an avid weather buff. (She's even chased tornados!) She's also an amateur historian. A Pennsylvania native, she lives in Bucks County, and her twin passions merged in a book about the community impact of a raging flood on the Delaware in which people were literally ripped from their beds. Nearly 100 lost their lives and some victims disappeared forever.

Chopper removing bodies.

I once lived on this river and heard stunning stories about this flood. I watched the river rise during heavy rains and always breathed in relief when the approaching water finally receded. I moved away just before my own former house was flooded.

I invited Mary to describe on a guest blog her experience of collecting the info about loss, devastation, and survival over this terrifying three days. What follows is her voice:

I often tell people that if I'd known what I was getting myself into when I undertook to write my book, Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955, I wouldn't have done it. The research stage ballooned and took on a life of its own, as I found there were no major sources gathered in one or two places. By the time I was done, that and the writing/editing process had eaten three years of my life, in the middle of which I'd lost my mom.

But I'm so glad I didn't know, because the experience has changed me forever, mostly for the better. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Through that experience, I met people I'd never have encountered otherwise, a few of whom are now dear friends. I've made many connections with historians and other authors and fellow weather geeks, whom I enjoy and learn from. And not a small part of that change was learning in a very real way the responsibility to get the story right and to tell the truth to the best of one's ability.

I interviewed more than 100 survivors of this weather disaster. It's still the record-holding flood on the Delaware River by any measure, caused by the remnants of back-to-back hurricanes Connie and Diane. Some of those I interviewed had lost close friends and family members in the ravaging flash floods that occurred mainly along the Brodhead Creek and its tributaries in Monroe County, Pennsylvania.

There are other loss survivors whom I was unable to interview, to whom I felt a duty to get it right, so I was more diligent than I've ever been in chasing down every last detail.

The book was first published in October of 2005, only a month after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast. Hurricane-caused flooding was foremost in many people's minds. Few authors have benefited from such a timely marketing hook, but it was hard to be glad when I knew the price so many had paid.

I was reminded of this when I spoke at the public library in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Already nervous as a first-time speaker on the subject, I was also acutely aware of the possibility that surviving family members of some of those who were killed in the flood might be in the audience. It made me ultra-careful of the words I chose to describe certain aspects of the event, particularly when it came to talking about the bodies as they were found … or not.

How do you tactfully discuss how you nearly threw up reading the coroner's autopsy reports that limned in gruesome detail of how one father could only identify his teenage son by his wristwatch because the swollen, bruised body had been so thoroughly beaten by all the timbers and heavy debris in the water? And how, as the father finally looked into the young man's face, he noticed that his son's jaw was completely torn away?

How was I to delicately describe the way I felt when, after trying to decipher the morgue shorthand of another report — this one on an 8-year-old boy — I realized to my horror that the numbers and abbreviations meant that the child had taken fifteen minutes to die by drowning? Or the description of how a 4-year-old boy had been found hanging in the branches of a tree, where the receding water had left him, possibly still alive and terrified and losing his fight to breathe?

That kind of thing stays with you. I didn't really want it to stay with any of these boys' remaining families who might have come to see my presentation. They'd suffered enough.

I was quickly rewarded for my discretion. It turned out that indeed there were such family survivors in attendance. Three of them — none younger than 80 — came up to me afterwards. The one in the middle — tiny and shriveled with age, eyes brimming with tears — looked up at me and put both her hands on my arms in a polite semi-hug.

"Thank you," she said. "You can't know what you have done with your book. So many of us lived through the worst night of our lives, but back then you didn't dwell on such things. We were expected to just get over it. There was no such thing as post-traumatic stress. But we knew there was, even without a name for it. We lived it, and we all wondered what was wrong with us that we couldn't just move on. But your book tells the whole story, so now everyone can understand how truly awful it was for some of us. You have validated our suffering and given us some closure."

She paused, gathering herself, but couldn't manage another full sentence. I watched her swallow hard as her eyes welled up again. "Such a gift. Thank you."

A gift, indeed. How many authors get such immediate feedback on the worth of their work? I could barely speak myself, only nodded and hugged her back through my own brimming tears. "I hope I've honored your loved ones. That was my intention."

She gave my arms a final squeeze; then, she and her friends turned and walked slowly out the door.

As I watched them go, all I could think was, "And here I thought I was just indulging my inner weather geek by writing a little regional history."

Yeah, I'm so glad I didn't know beforehand what I was getting myself into.


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