The great hurricane of '44

WAY BACK WHEN

August 04, 2001|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Who hath desired the sea?-the sight of salt water unbounded- The heave and the halt and the haul and the crash of the comber wind-hounded? The sleek-barreled wave before storm, grey, foamless, enormous and growing- Stark calm in the lap of the line or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing. -- Rudyard Kipling

Meteorologists are predicting that with the warming of the Atlantic Ocean, more powerful hurricanes will probably form in the next 20 to 30 years, as did between 1970 and 1994.

The thought of another Andrew, Hugo or Camille is a worry not only to insurance companies but also to federal and state authorities, who wonder how they will evacuate residents and visitors from the popular coastal resorts that stretch from Maine to Florida in the face of such mega-storms.

Oftentimes, access roads to the densely developed barrier island resorts date to the 1920s or 1930s and would be inadequate to handle such an exodus, leading experts to predict a significant loss of life.

No. 25 on the National Hurricane Center's hit parade of costliest 20th-century hurricanes is the 1944 storm that swirled up the coast Sept. 9-16, killing 390 - 344 of those at sea - and causing, in today's dollars, more than $1 billion in damage.

"A great hurricane fraught with peril for life and property is bearing down on the North Carolina coast; only a last-minute change of direction could save the coastline from a raking by winds of a force comparable to the New England Hurricane of 1938," warned the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Named the Great Atlantic Hurricane, or the Northeast Hurricane, its deadly track took it from its spawning grounds east of Puerto Rico northwestward toward the mainland. By the time it reached Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Sept. 14, it had ballooned to a 500-mile radius and pushed powerful swells 500 miles outward from the center of the storm.

Barometric pressure plunged to 27.97 inches as 110-mph winds howled at Cape Hatteras. As the storm moved northward near Cape Henry, Va., winds soared to 134 mph as tides rose seven feet above normal.

Locally, the storm missed Baltimore completely, and its only effects were heavy rains, which caused two trees to topple over in the 3200 block of Carlisle Ave.

The storm bore down on Ocean City with winds clocked at 85 mph and accompanied by a hard, driving rain that knocked out telephone service in Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties. Lights blinked off in the early afternoon and stayed off.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. Weather Bureau advised that dangerously high tides, which failed to materialize, might sweep the resort. Three buses loaded up 300 vacationers and headed for Salisbury, leaving 1,200 residents behind, as the storm passed less than 100 miles east of the resort between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m.

"The hurricane lifted parts of the boardwalk from their moorings, flooded the first floors of oceanfront hotels and drove ocean water into the town to a depth of three feet or more," reported The Sun.

"Strong winds and heavy rains lashed Ocean City for nearly four hours before the last of the hurricane passed northward up the Atlantic coast late in the afternoon. Police and members of the Coast Guard reported that tremendous waves washed over the beach at the height of the storm, sweeping sand and debris back to Philadelphia Avenue, two blocks inland," reported the newspaper.

Roads leading to Ocean City were littered with hunks of wooden billboards that had exploded in the wind. Waves tore off a corner of the Maryland Inn while winds denuded the boardwalk of wood near the Commander Hotel. Automobiles were buried under mountains of sand. Damage estimates at the resort soared to $250,000.

However, only one serious storm-related injury was reported by state police. In the confusion of the approaching storm, Anna Scarborough, of the 5900 block of York Road in Baltimore, tumbled down a flight of stairs in a hotel and was taken to Salisbury Hospital for treatment.

At Rehoboth Beach, Del., a 250-foot freighter, the Thomas Tracy, was driven around by high winds and broken in two by pounding seas. At the height of the storm, Coast Guardsmen were able to safely remove the crew of 31.

At Cape Henlopen, Del., the roofs of houses were blown away by the intense winds. The Red Cross evacuated 35 children from the Children's Beach House near Lewes, Del., while other Delaware residents made for safer ground.

Lashed by 90-mph winds that roared upward to 105 mph, Atlantic City was cut off from the outside world as road and railroad traffic came to a halt.

Like Ocean City, hunks of its famed boardwalk was ripped up by the storm. Raging seas cut the Heinz Pier in two, forcing Coast Guardsmen to rescue survivors with a breeches buoy. The Million Dollar Pier suffered damage while some Atlantic City residents rode out the storm in the relative safety of Convention Hall.

The storm caused the sinking of the Warrington, a Navy destroyer, with a loss of 247 sailors. Two Coast Guard cutters, the Bedloe and Jackson, the Vineyard Sound Lightship No. 47 and the minesweeper YMS 409 went to the bottom, claiming 97 additional lives.

The storm passed over Providence, R.I., before veering out to sea, where it eventually died.

"The Great September Hurricane was the most destructive to hit New Jersey in about seventy-five years. State climatologist A. E. White said `neither weather records nor old newspaper accounts reveal a storm as damaging since the Civil War,'" wrote Larry Savadov and Margaret Thomas Buchholz in their book Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, published in 1993.

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