The 1962 storm was no fluke

Way Back When

March 10, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Last weekend, Marylanders, prompted by unrelenting broadcast reports that the region was about to be hit by "The Storm of the Century, "The Perfect Storm" and a "36-hour event that will bring the state to a halt," denuded grocery store shelves of everything from bread and candles to toilet paper.

The siege mentality was in full swing. It was as if an advancing army were sweeping in on the city, forever choking off all supplies and foodstuffs.

However, Sunday turned into Monday, and the dreaded and much-hyped storm's only contribution to disrupting life here was a light dusting of snow in some areas, icy roads, high winds and dashed expectations.

Largely bypassing Maryland and skirting northward, it finally lived up to its advanced billing while pounding New England with heavy snows, raging seas and high winds.

The interior of Pennsylvania and New York states experienced deep snows; for ski resorts, it was a late season blessing.

The storm that has genuinely earned the appellation "Storm of the Century" was what has become known as the "Ash Wednesday Storm" of March 5-9, 1962.

The combination of three pressure areas gave birth to what weather historians have called "one of the worst extra-tropical cyclones experienced this century," in which wind-driven seas inundated coastal barriers from North Carolina to New England, causing damage in excess of $300 million and killing 40 people.

In Western Maryland, 21 inches of snow fell in 24 hours. Four inches of heavy, wet snow and high winds blew through Baltimore, toppling trees and ripping the sign off the Mayfair Theater. At the Farmers Market on Pulaski Highway, a section of roofing over the store's furniture department gave way in the wind, allowing in snow and rain that destroyed $40,000 worth of furniture stock.

Some 50,000 homes were without power, and the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. reported that 14,500 customers were without telephone service. Races were canceled at Bowie, and schools were closed in Baltimore and Baltimore County for two days.

However, the storm reserved special fury for Ocean City, Rehoboth, Bethany and Dewey Beach.

On Sunday evening, March 4, residents noticed that winds were coming briskly out of the northeast; by sunrise, seas 6 to 8 feet lapped at the edge of the boardwalk.

A "spring tide" caused by a new moon resulted in tides being 2 feet above normal by Tuesday. Late in the day, the gale that was in full force hit the Maryland resort.

"Northeast winds blew down across the Atlantic (600 miles) in what seafaring people call a `long fetch.' In this distance they piled a lot of water up in front of them and pushed it into already flooded coastal towns," reported The Sun.

"As if it had waited to be recognized, the storm broke. The wind became a howler, a buffeting 45-mile gale with gusts of near hurricane force. It carried snow and sheets of rain. It broke wires, tore down signs, and picked up sand, shingles and broken shrubbery that cut and scratched whatever it hit," reported the newspaper.

Mayor Hugh T. Cooper, with help from Ocean City's volunteer fire department, the Coast Guard and National Guard volunteers, began evacuating the resort's 1,500 winter residents as rising water washed over streets.

Headlines in Wednesday's Sun told the story: SEA SWEEPS OVER OCEAN CITY; RESIDENTS FLEE; DAMAGE HIGH and the next day the newspaper reported: COLD SEAS SWAMP OCEAN CITY AGAIN; 500 EVACUATED FROM CHINCOTEAGUE.

"The sea, whipped into white caps by 70-miles-an hour winds, swept over the city Tuesday night, yesterday morning and last night," wrote The Evening Sun. "Today, its broad streets are packed with sand, its boardwalk is no more and some of its ocean-front hotels, motels and apartments have been ripped from their foundations. Everywhere there is destruction.

"At the height of the destruction the heavy seas rolled up the beaches, smashed through the boardwalk, pushed past buildings and engulfed the whole city as they surged into Sinepuxent Bay," said the newspaper.

President John F. Kennedy declared the Delmarva coast a disaster area. When it was all over, damage estimates for Ocean City alone hit the $6,500,000 mark.

The 1962 storm also edged out the great hurricane of 1933 as the storm of record.

During the 1933 hurricane, tides rose to 7 feet, 1 inch above the mean low tide level. The 1962 storm rose to 9 feet, 4-5 inches above mean low tide.

Speaking of the 1933 storm, The Sun observed, "It is - or was until yesterday - remembered as `the storm.'" It was now just a memory.

The storm continued its destructive romp up the Eastern Seaboard, destroying 45,000 homes along the New Jersey coast, and tearing off a section of Atlantic City's famed Steel Pier.

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