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Delaware County — birthplace of Wawa and Tina Fey and “Mare of Easttown” — has a cultural reach way beyond its borders, eccentricities to spare, and a lot of Darbys (Upper and not), too.
Does it seem so strange that the strict rules of time and place might not apply here?
Not if you believe in the Delco Bubble.
The term recently popped up on the WHYY News radar, and initially it didn’t seem to have much of a digital footprint. Still Delcoman83, a user of Urban Dictionary, appeared to have some knowledge of the mysterious lore behind it.
In 2013, he defined the Delco Bubble as “a fictional bubble that some believe surrounds Delaware County, PA and protects it from harsh weather and other hazards while [surrounding] counties get hit hard.”
WHYY News did the only logical thing: ask the audience. And members of the Facebook group Citizens of Delco had a lot to say, offering a wide array of thoughts on the matter.
There were longtime Delco residents who had never heard of the bubble. But for some of them, it seemed to be the perfect way to describe something they have believed in for quite a while.
Donald Jacobs, 35, of Drexel Hill, said his parents have talked about Delco’s unique weather patterns since they moved there from Lycoming County in the 1980s.
“And they said the whole time they lived here, they’ve noticed that we must be in some type of valley or something crazy, because storms always break up and go around us,” Jacobs said.
Not only do storms break up, according to Jacobs, they reconverge once they hit the county line. As possible evidence, he pointed to the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which caused tornadoes in neighboring counties, but none in Delco.
Sarah Connors, 27, of Chester, got tagged under the post by her mom. That’s because Connors has made it her mission to spread the message that Delaware County is the best geographical location to live in the state: It’s close to the airport, it offers a balance of city and country life — and there’s no severe weather.
She hadn’t heard of the Delco Bubble before, but she’s a believer.
“There’s pictures of a blizzard in 1994, and I mean the snow was about two or three feet high, but beyond that we really haven’t experienced much of any sort of extreme weather at all,” Connors said.
Karen Belfi, 48, of Woodlyn, moved to Delco from Bucks County less than five years ago and said she and her family dodged a bullet. They used to live in Croydon, an area that has been battered this summer by storm after storm.
“I did notice that since we moved down here, as they keep calling for storms, we just don’t seem to be hit that badly. But people I know in Bucks County get hit, and my sister up in [Northeast Philly] all had terrible rain and some flooding, and down here we haven’t gotten anything,” Belfi said.
Janis Carry, 43, of Upper Chichester, has an emotional tie to the Bubble. Her father, Kevin Carry, passed away in August, she said, and he was quite the “big weather nerd.” A firefighter and longtime president at Darby Company No. 1, he managed his own weather equipment outside his home.
Carry doesn’t remember precisely when she first heard of the Delco Bubble, but she remembers her father referring to it when trying to predict the weather more than 10 years ago.
“And then when social media came upon, it was like, ‘Oh, well, that’s what that is. That’s the Delco Bubble.’ You know, like, if there’s a storm or something, ‘Oh, then the bubble will be up,’ if we don’t get anything,” Carry said.
Her father and his friends at the firehouse would playfully feud before storms were set to arrive , she said.
“So, it was big for them down at the firehouse, with trying to predict the weather and if the bubble would actually hold or not,” Carry said.
Jason O’Neill, 45, of Secane, was a longtime friend of Kevin Carry at the firehouse. Their legendary weather feuds were always in good fun, he said, and he remembers hearing about the Delco Bubble more than two decades ago.
“In the late ’90s, I began operating my own snowplow business in the winter and, as everybody can remember it, in the late ’90s, we had some really clobbering snowstorms. And then, we had storms that were forecasted that we were going to get dumped on that completely just missed, and I think that’s where the origination of the Delco Bubble really began,” O’Neill said.
When he watches the weather radars now, O’Neill is usually in awe of how bands of severe weather separate over the heart of Delco.
“It’s really unique. And I don’t know that there’s anywhere else around here and even in the tri-state area that experiences anything like that — except right here in Delaware County,” he said.
As it happens, a firefighter at the Rose Tree Fire Company in Media, Charles Jordan, 70, had posted about the Delco Bubble in a different Facebook group the week before our WHYY News inquiry.
Jordan, who lives in Upper Providence, said in an interview that he remembers using the term in the early 2000s, when a snow forecast called for 3 feet of snow in the area, but his part of Delco saw less than an inch.
But after recent storms left Chadds Ford underwater, “I put it out there … that the Delco Bubble popped,” Jordan said.
Scientific fact or local lore?
There was consensus in the Facebook comments on who might know the origin of the Delco Bubble: Todd Bennett.
Bennett, 60, of Parkside, runs a Facebook group called Todd’s Delaware County Weather. With nearly 11,000 members, the page serves as a popular destination for local weather enthusiasts. He said he first heard of the Delco Bubble in 2018, when he started the group.
“It was used without really any interpretation. I think everybody kind of made their own assumption, if you will, of what in the heck is a Delco Bubble,” Bennett said.
Though he thinks of it as a playful slang term, Bennett said he has noticed some strange occurrences on weather radars.
“For example, about a month ago, I posted a radar image of a heavy thunderstorm moving in from Chester County. And, I kid you not, as it approached the Delaware County region, it split into two almost as if there was a dome or a bubble over Delaware County, and part of it went to the north through Chester County into Montgomery County and the other part went to the south across the river into New Jersey. And so everybody got a really good laugh out of that,” Bennett said.
Bennett makes it abundantly clear that he does not have a background in meteorology. So he’ll be first to admit that he can’t say whether the Delco Bubble is the real deal.
Enter Sarah Johnson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, New Jersey. She’s heard this story before during her 15 years in the field. Although the Delco Bubble is new to her, she has heard of the Cape May Bubble.
“We would never say that any one location is immune to severe weather. Severe weather can happen anywhere, and it has happened everywhere in our area,” Johnson said.
She acknowledged that this year a lot of the severe weather has missed Delco. But she pointed to the flooding in the region caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida as evidence to the contrary.
What’s her verdict on the Bubble?
“I would say it’s largely perception,” Johnson said.
“All that being said, there can be situations where you might see the storms weaken as they get closer to the Delaware River area, including the Delaware Valley — including Delaware County, and that’s mostly when we see sea breeze and bay breezes that develop and move inland and they can move as far inland as Delaware County,” she said. “And so when that happens, you have cold air right up the surface, which has the effect of basically stabilizing the air.”
That means strong storms coming from the west may lose some of their steam as they approach the stable air mass.
“But that’s just going to be on a case-by-case basis, not necessarily a picture of the overall severe weather risk,” Johnson said.
She added that she hears the bubble sentiment quite frequently in areas of the country that manage to dodge the deadly tornadoes that wallop their neighbors.
“We just like to emphasize that everyone needs to be severe weather-aware. Wherever you live, there can be differences in the frequency of severe weather. But regardless of where you live, there can be potential for severe weather,” Johnson said.
Ed Sweeney, 44, of Clifton Heights, has quite literally been chasing storms for a large part of his life, both in Delaware County and the Great Plains.
As a certified forecaster and volunteer reporter for Skywarn, Sweeney heard stories of bubbles across the country. He first heard of the Delco Bubble several years ago.
Sweeney thinks these bubbles contain a hint of anecdotal truth.
“There are places around the country. Washington, D.C., is one where there’s a term called the DC Split, where people believe storms split around them. Oddly enough, one place this comes up a lot is Norman, Oklahoma, where people talk about the Norman Bubble,” he said.
Norman is just south of Oklahoma City, and right next door to Moore, Oklahoma. According to Sweeney, Moore has had four EF3 or higher tornadoes in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, Norman has largely avoided the most damaging tornadoes.
Though there may be some truth to bubble claims, Sweeney thinks they can most likely be attributed to the fact that some individuals have not had to personally face such storms.
“A lot of times locally, you will see, especially with severe weather events, that if it doesn’t affect someone directly, they assume nothing happened. For example, Oct. 31, 2019, an EF2 tornado struck out in Glen Mills, but a lot of people that weren’t directly affected by it or know people who were, if you ask them now, they would say, ‘Oh we never get hit,” Sweeney said.
Like Johnson, he stressed preparedness.
“It’s not something you want to hang your hat on,” Sweeney said.
PJ Dolan, 42, of Ridley Park, is way ahead of them.
“I don’t believe any of it. I don’t believe any of it, because we flood here a lot,” Dolan said.
He owns a bar called Dolan, and he offered a different definition for the Delco Bubble — essentially, what separates Delaware County from “Delco.” He thinks it’s the blue-collar attitude that creates its own culture and bubble of influence.
“We have a very strong and very overzealous patronage of the people that come in here, and they’re very proud and we’re very, very Delco-centric,” Dolan said. “Delco wasn’t really a thing 15 years ago, but now it is, you know, it’s a huge thing.”