This past week marked the 50th year anniversary that still has people on the Jersey coast talking about the storm of the century, which occurred March 6 – 8 and was called The Great Storm of 1962. Along the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States this storm packed such a wallop locals still consider it to be unlike anything they can recall.
Early yesterday morning, I overheard a few old timers discussing the “Storm of 62″ and asked if I could sit in on their conversation and take some notes. Sam Molino said; “We were an area accustomed to a hurricane season like from late August to early November every year, you know the typical “Nor’easters”, but this storm was mean, it was different and it was scary, haven’t seen one since as bad”. His friend Jimmy Chandler chimed in; “oh it was bad, my house had water gushin in from every opening, a lot of damage and no where to go, the bridges were our only link to the mainland and they were covered with water”.
For nearly three days, the storm hammered the coast, battering the shoreline, sweeping beach homes, hotels, and boardwalks into the sea while further inland, wind-driven snow virtually immobilized portions of the Middle Atlantic states.
The storm was born during a “blocked” weather system meaning the weather simply couldn’t move. The block was cause by a huge storm developing east of North Carolina. Then a large high pressure system was over northern Canada and a developing storm that covered much of the western Atlantic Ocean combined to generate a vast circulation of wind that blew along a tremendous length, or fetch, of the ocean.
As a result, water and high waves were driven westward toward the Eastern seaboard, setting the stage for disaster. Combine this mix of weather pressures with tides that were already high on March 6 due to the spring equinox and couple that with a new moon, all causing higher-than-normal tides.
As the water continued to pile up along the East Coast during successive high tide cycles over the following three days, the coastline from New Jersey to North Carolina was battered and changed forever by the onslaught of wind and waves. Across New Jersey’s coastal barrier islands, residents rushed to escape as the waters rose. Bridges which were, in many places, the only link to the mainland, quickly became blocked by water and debris. Evacuees often had to be plucked from their homes by helicopters, or rescued by army trucks.
Almost all of Sea Isle City’s 1,200 residents were forced to leave their homes, many of which were submerged up to 5 feet of water. Many Cape May locals fled after they were left without electricity, water, heat or sewage facilities. Atlantic City was pummeled by 25-foot high waves and wind gusts up to 58 mph.
Adolph Wilsey, a resident of Sea Isle City, recalled the scene as the fury of the storm set in:
“Those tides! Tuesday morning was a bad one. Waves came banging into the bulkhead like the wrath of God. The bulkheads held but the sea, whipped by the wind, came right over the top of them. That was only the beginning. Tuesday night’s tide was worse.
The granddaddy of them all came Wednesday morning. It smashed the bulkheads like kindling wood and the ocean came roaring at us, rushing into the streets. It ripped away an eight-foot section of my living room wall and pounded out two windows. Water and sand poured over my floor. Furniture was knocked over. Between my house and the ocean there used to be three houses. They were swept away. Not a trace of them was left.” (from the book “Great Storms of the Jersey Shore,”copyright Down the Shore Publishing)
What was happening elsewhere?
Out at sea, the storm tossed the 500-foot Liberian tanker, the Gem, like a child’s toy, breaking the enormous vessel in two. It took three Navy destroyers to rescue the 27 men left stranded in the stern, while the cruise ship Victoria sent a lifeboat for the three men remaining in the bow. Fifteen men on fishing trawlers out of Point Pleasant, New Jersey were not so lucky – they were lost at sea.
While rain, high tides and winds pummeled the shore, inland snowfall wiped out telephone communication and suspended virtually all transportation. A blizzard blanketed North Carolina and completely enveloped Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in nearly 2 feet of snow. Winchester, Virginia, endured a record-shattering twenty-three inches of snow, the heaviest single snowfall in the history of that city, while up to 42 inches fell in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Snow fell as far south as Alabama, and temperatures plunged into the 30s across Florida.
It was considered by the U.S. Geological Survey to be one of the most destructive storms ever to impact the mid-Atlantic states. One of the ten worst storms in the United States in the 20th century, it lingered through five high tides over a three day period, killing 40 people, injuring over 1,000 and causing hundreds of millions in property damage in six states.
New Jersey’s shoreline took a beating. The high tides pulled homes off their foundations, ripped through roads and created new inlets along Long Beach Island. Portions of the Atlantic City boardwalk were shredded by the pounding surf.
Estimated damage to the state was $130 million, almost half of the total of all six states hit. A newspaper later reported on the scene in the town of Harvey Cedars, “The houses are everywhere, in no order, sometimes piled two or three together. Around them crushed and mangled cars and trucks lie half buried.”
The Red Cross put the death toll for the East Coast at 40, with a quarter of those killed in New Jersey. While the storm was neither a hurricane, nor a classic nor’easter, its impact was so powerful, the U.S. Weather Bureau gave it a name – “The Great Atlantic Storm.” Folks in Nags Head, NC later changed the name to the Ash Wednesday Storm of 62 referencing the solemn holiday, the same day that shared the day the storm unleashed its fury.
Photographs courtesy of the Historical Society of New Jersey