Debating whether to stay put or flee beach during hurricanes

  • Mountainous waves swept into Ocean City in 1933, covering some of the streets with two feet of sand.
Mountainous waves swept into Ocean City in 1933, covering some… (Baltimore Sun )
September 03, 2010|Jacques Kelly

A Delaware state trooper tapped on the screen door of our summertime cottage one rainy 1954 morning. He told my family to leave, that a hurricane was on the way. This was in Dewey Beach, and our Rodney Avenue house was built on a sand dune not far from the breaking waves.

I recall a little debate about whether we should pull up, evacuate and return to Baltimore or ride Hurricane Carol out. We had no radio, television or telephone. A storm was just a storm, and my family had been through plenty of them before.

My father, Joe Kelly, who grew up in South Baltimore and liked to watch storms from Federal Hill Park, was the designated driver. His vote counted more than others. After some hurried packing, we were soon sailing through Georgetown, Del. Once back in Baltimore, the skies cleared, as they often do after a storm. Carol tore up the coast and violently smacked Long Island and New England. My father, it turns out, acted prudently.

Late-summer storms always provoke a guessing game. If you are on your vacation, should you call it quits and head for the Bay Bridge, or buy a fresh deck of cards and settle in?

My mother was a veteran of the Ocean City hurricane of August 1933. She was the kind of person who liked to stick around and watch the ocean devour a boardwalk and the odd hotel. In Baltimore, she chased fire engines and police cars and savored the thrill of a good calamity. She enjoyed life with lots of drama.

I think she enjoyed her hurricane experience that summer of 1933, when she and a group of Baltimore friends were in Ocean City at the Hotel Majestic during the last few weeks before school began. About to turn 16, she was a strong swimmer and loved the big waves that form as a storm approaches. She often told me how she hated being called out of the surf that day.

The storm struck quickly and ripped apart sections of the boardwalk. My mother and her friends jumped on a Baltimore Sun truck and crossed Assawoman Bay. She spent a night near Berlin in Worcester County before returning to Ocean City. About 16 people slept in a two-bedroom house. The day after the storm brought perfect, clear weather. They re-entered the resort town on a barge after the causeway took a beating.

This storm is now called the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane. It was a wicked and powerful event that smashed through Virginia and Maryland. It was so powerful that it cut an inlet through the Ocean City barrier island, opening a passage through sand dunes from the Atlantic Ocean to Assawoman Bay.

The storm also handed my grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, a lot of work. Unlike his daughter, he did not like drama. He was the man to call when you needed a dam built or had a big water emergency.

He had been assigned by the Army Corps of Engineers to secure the new inlet with stone jetties so Ocean City could have a permanent ocean-bay harbor. He left Baltimore and moved to Ocean City for more than a year, supervising his construction team during the Depression. He oversaw a north jetty, but his far more challenging operation was the south jetty, a rock breakwater built in the newly creased ocean inlet.

That job finished, he was off to the Susquehanna River, which flooded badly in 1936.

About 20 years after Pop Monaghan's Ocean City work was completed, he took me to the inlet and explained how he had a temporary rail spur put in to bring carload after carload of granite to secure the watercourse. Without boasting, he was quietly pleased at the broad beach Ocean City now had. Before the Corps of Engineers work, the beach was so shallow that waves occasionally broke over the boardwalk. He was brought out of retirement in 1962, when the Atlantic roared through Ocean City during a freak March storm that wrecked the place. This was Pop's last disaster. He died the next year.

In 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes hit during June. It pumped rain over the East Coast and flooded the ocean blocks at Rehoboth Beach, where we were now quartered. This time, there was no guessing. My mother sat this one out. She missed nothing and was happier for it.

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