Today marks the 50-year anniversary of one of the most intense winter storms to hit the East Coast in the last century. The Ash Wednesday storm of March 5-9, 1962, battered the coast the of mid-Atlantic and Northeast, causing over $200 million in property damage and killing 40 people. The storm destroyed or severely damaged 45,000 homes along the coast, according to the National Weather Service.
No other East Coast winter storm in the last 50 years took destroyed more homes or took away more land, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
This northeaster, which coincided with a spring tide, remained stationary for almost 36 hrs so that beach and barrier flooding lasted over 5 consecutive spring high tides (O’Brien and Johnson, 1963). The strong northeast winds, broad fetch, and high angle of wave approach caused record flooding and beach erosion down the eastern seaboard extending from New England to Florida. Most houses near the beach were destroyed by storm waves and washover unless a wide beach and high dunes protected them (Morton et al., 2003).
In its retrospective on the storm, the Baltimore Sun quoted University of Maryland senior Janet Holland who remembers watching the CBS Evening News the night the storm blew into Ocean City, Md.
“Walter Cronkite basically indicated the city was washing away,” she said.
The Sun reported the storm destroyed 75 homes and businesses in Ocean City
“The Ash Wednesday Storm’s high waters covered the narrow island with as much as four feet of floodwaters,” the Sun wrote. “Storm waves crashed through buildings north of Ocean City proper to form a temporary inlet at 71st Street.”
As winds raged to 60-70 mph, waves as high 25 feet crashed into Ocean City. The Delmarva Daily Times noted that it was “the only time anyone can remember Ocean City being totally overwashed by the ocean.”
At the peak of the storm, high tide was about 9 1/2 feet above normal low tide in Ocean City, the Sun said.
In Delaware, the storm caused about $90 million damages. The Delmarva Daily Times reported 1,932 homes were damaged between Dewey Beach and Fenwick Island, describing “catastrophic damage” all along the Maryland and Delaware Beaches:
The storm caused water levels to rise three to six feet above street level. In Bethany Beach, residents had to use small boats to travel to Lord Baltimore Elementary School, a makeshift refugee center 2.5 miles from the ocean.
The State of Delaware blogged that in Rehoboth the boardwalk was “ripped apart; its planks piled up like toothpicks against the businesses that once lined the popular summer attraction.”
The National Weather Service wrote both Chincoteague and Assateague island “were completely underwater.”Assateague Naturalist said that in Chincoteague, 1200 homes and ninety percent of the cars were damaged, and that the poultry industry was “destroyed”. Delmarvanow.com wrote the wild pony population was “decimated.”
State police aerial video of the destructive storm that hit Delaware in 1962. More videos here.
In the Virginia tidewater, the tide reached 6.21 feet above sea level at Sewell’s point, the highest in the modern record for a winter storm.
Farther up the coast into New Jersey, “the great Atlantic gale of March 1962 remains the standard for gauging storm peril for the Jersey Shore,” wrote the Daily Journal.
“The storm toppled oceanfront mansions in Monmouth Beach, damaged Ocean City fishing piers and flattened most of Long Beach Island,” it said.
Inland, the Washington-Baltimore region experienced a mix of rain and snow during the course of the storm. Officially, Washington, D.C. tallied 4” of snow and the equivalent of 1.33” of rain from March 5-7. Day time highs ranged from 37-40 with overnight lows from 28-33. But towards the mountains, crippling snow amounts mounted. Here’s a summary from the National Weather Service:
Big Meadows, southeast of Luray, recorded Virginia’s greatest 24-hour snowfall with 33 inches and the greatest single storm snowfall with 42 inches. Nearly two feet of snow fell from Charlottesville (21 inches) to Luray (24 inches) to Winchester (22 inches). Roads were blocked and electrical service was out for several days.
What was behind the storm’s huge impact both along the coast and in the interior? It was a combination of the intensity of the coastal low pressure system, the astronomically high spring tide, and a very strong high pressure system to the north, which forced the low to stall.
“Most nor’easters are moving fairly quickly,” Dan Leathers, Delaware state climatologist told the Delmarva Daily Times. “In this case, the storm sat there and piled up water. It just allowed more and more water to be piled up along the coast.”
With the slew of billion dollar weather disasters in the last year, the $200 million damage toll from the Ash Wednesday storm may not seem like much. But, in today’s dollars, it is the equivalent of $1.5 billion. Also, consider that, in 1962, the mid-Atlantic was far less developed than today.
Since 1962, to help protect coastal property from such a storm, large dunes have been constructed, beaches replenished, and new building standards put into place (e.g. oceanfront homes are on pilings). Even so, the impact of a similar storm with today’s infrastructure is difficult to imagine.
Delmarva’s perfect storm (Delmarva Daily Times)
50 years ago, Ocean City was washing away (Baltimore Sun)
‘62 storm effects still felt in NJ (Daily Journal)