This post has been update to reflect the threat of Hurricane Jose.
Images of Hurricane Connie’s catastrophic destruction in 1955 reached Americans by newsreel, set to orchestra music and hyperbolic eloquence.
“The big blow named Connie makes matchbooks of beach homes,” the famed news narrator Ed Herlihy declared. “The twister levels everything in its path.”
The August “reign of terror” lasted days, Herlihy reported, leaving behind “the inevitable quagmire of mud.”
And then Diane came along.
With Hurricane Irma threatening to make matchbooks of Florida homes not long after Harvey struck Houston — Jose is not far behind — it’s worth remembering that history also repeats itself meteorologically.
In 1964: Cleo, then Dora.
In 2005: Katrina, then Rita.
Any hurricane making landfall is its own unique catastrophe, but the 1955 season, with Connie and Diane slamming North Carolina barely a week apart, was (at the time) the costliest and deadliest season ever recorded, with nearly 300 fatalities and more than $1 billion in damage.
The second strike — Diane — “was undoubtedly the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of the United States,” according to a government weather report that year. Although Diane made landfall as a tropical storm, the heavy rains along the already soggy Eastern Seaboard were ruinous.
From a New York Times report:
With a foot of rain falling in just 36 hours, state and federal governments struggled to address the damage, with President Dwight D. Eisenhower scrambling to craft a general-like response — and get in front of cameras.
“Like the rest of you, I read in the papers, saw on the television, and heard on the radio about this great disaster,” Eisenhower said in a radio address to the nation after meeting several governors. “… Industries flattened, cities practically paralyzed, communications halted, people out of work, suffering — in certain instances missing members of their families, not knowing where they are.”
Eisenhower’s staff got him aboard an aircraft to view the wreckage, with a Universal Studios newsreel crew aboard.
“He looks over a map, puts on his glasses, stretches over a table, and looks out a window, presumably to view the flood damage,” Paul Martin Lester wrote in “On Floods and Photo Ops,” a history of presidents racing to be near cameras during natural disasters.
Decades later, President George W. Bush was photographed taking a similar flyover of Hurricane Katrina damage, though he was lambasted for appearing detached from the harrowing drama unfolding below.
Not so for Eisenhower, even as he looked down unable to see a single thing.
“The sky was cloudy over the flooded area and prevented the president from seeing anything on the ground,” Lester wrote. “Nevertheless, that fact did not inhibit the media from communicating the message of Ike’s concern to the public.”
Eisenhower eventually sought and signed legislation to provide funding for flood control programs, helping cities and towns protect citizens from rising waters.
But there was no protection against the horrifying memories.
On the 60th anniversary of Connie and Diane, residents of a Poconos town remembered the homes, bridges and lives that were swept away. The fire department used a loudspeaker to provide information.
“They just started announcing the names of everybody that was known to be safe and they did that for like a day and a half,” one resident said, adding, “I helped bring some body bags in at the hospital. Everybody did what they could.”
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