coastal weather woes of the weekend recall that 'Great' storm of March 1962

JACQUES KELLY

January 06, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

As soon I heard a shutter smash against the front window, I knew Saturday's storm was blowing from the east-northeast, the direction that sends nothing but weather trouble.

If this past weekend's blow had waited another two months, it would have struck precisely 30 years after the coast's last great storm, March 6 and 7, 1962. That was the "Great" storm, the one that has yet to be surpassed and certainly one I'll never forget.

It all began Sunday afternoon, March 4, 1962. A low-pressure system and cold temperatures brought a prediction of snow in Baltimore. Winds churned up the Atlantic. By Monday, the coast had rain. Baltimore newspapers ran bulletins that wet snow was due. Most people settled in for the night to watch "To Tell the Truth," "Andy Griffith," "Ben Casey" and (prophetically) "Surfside Six."

Just about the time "To Tell the Truth" host Bud Collier was chiding Peggy Cass about taking too long to make a guess on the quiz show, the 50 mph Atlantic winds had veered around to the northeast.

By the dawn Tuesday the gusts were hitting 60 to 70 mph. Another storm, largely undetected, was forming offshore. The two storm forces combined to form a 600-mile-long, 300-mile-wide low pressure trough from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Cape Cod, Mass. The dual storms, the effect of the full moon (it arrived Tuesday) and its higher than normal tides brought flooding, and the erosion that resulted undermined anything near the sandy beaches.

The storm didn't just go away. It pounded the coast with three high tides. Wednesday's was the most brutal. It was a triple whammy no one had expected. The ocean devoured the beach. Most hotels, homes and apartments had shallow foundations and skimpy pilings. The ocean literally took the ground -- the sand -- out from under them.

By Friday, President John F. Kennedy declared the coast a disaster area. A week later, my family piled in the car to inspect the wreckage at Rehoboth Beach, Del. The event was so much on Baltimoreans' minds that taking off school to sightsee the forces of nature was allowed. The Sunpapers issued a $1 souvenir picture book ominously entitled "Storm of the Century."

The day I walked it, the beach was miserable, cold and rainy. There was no boardwalk left. And the storm had eroded a 10-foot drop into the sand. I don't recall how I got down to the beach from the street to observe the destruction up close.

For block after block, walls were ripped down. The old Henlopen Hotel was ripped apart. Its stylish dining room and terrace had vanished. And yet, the merry-go-round horses at Funland were somehow safe and were back that summer.

For many Julys we'd stayed in a roomy old oceanfront apartment house that was all porches and brown shingle walls. It was named "The Sussex" after the Delaware County were it stood. All that remained of this once sturdy manse was a pile of lumber and a pair of maids' rooms, where we had always placed the crib for the youngest Kelly. I found an aluminum percolator insert and claimed it as my souvenir.

A few minutes later my mother was looking for a large white wicker baby carriage she'd taken to the beach the summer previous and left behind.

We figured it was then halfway to Bermuda.

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