If you’re a baby boomer and you were a coastal Delaware resident in the early 1960s, you almost certainly remember the events that occurred during the first week of March in 1962.
Even if you were born and raised in the area, but weren’t yet with us 55 years ago, you’ve almost certainly heard stories about the monster storm that ripped through the area during that time. Nearly all of them are no doubt true.
And if you're not quite sure what we're referencing right now, maybe a couple of photos will jog your memory.
Located on the eastern seaboard of the United States, tiny Delaware is targeted frequently by Atlantic hurricanes, but the prime season for these devastating storms doesn’t begin until the warm weather season is upon us.
And that certainly isn’t the first week of March.
But if you’ve lived in Delaware long enough, you know it’s the dreaded nor’easters that tend to hit us the hardest. And that’s exactly what transpired over three unforgettable days in early March, 1962.
As the anniversary of this “storm to end all storms” is nearly upon us, we felt it was appropriate to remember it here today, and to possibly introduce this historic event to a younger generation who may not have heard about it before.
And for the older readers among us, it’s likely to jog a few memories, not only of the storm itself, but also of the way the community came together and rebuilt afterwards.
So, on the 55-year anniversary of this historic weather event, let’s look back on the dreaded storm of 1962, via the latest entry in our historic blog series here on theoldfathergroup.com.
First, we thought we'd share a music video recorded by a Delaware-based group named "Sand Creek." It's a folksy little song recorded by four First State residents, recalling this horrific event. But the video also includes many memorable and telling photos from the storm. Check it out below.
Now, on with the story…
The morning of March 6, 1962 started simply enough, with the weather report calling for a bit of stormy weather. However, no one expected the type of devastating storm that would soon ravage all of coastal Delaware.
But, in much the same way that Superstorm Sandy turned into a major weather event when two storms collided at just the right time, the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 was created via an unusual and perfectly timed meteorological event.
It began innocently enough, via two low pressure systems that developed off of the Atlantic coast. In and of itself, this created a strong storm that would have blown through coastal Delaware and likely wreaked a little bit of havoc on its way.
If only that was what had actually happened.
But there was trouble brewing over eastern Canada, and it was anything but a good development for the Delmarva Peninsula. It was the real catalyst for the storm, a high pressure system that really laid the groundwork for the devastation that was to follow.
Instead of blowing through quickly and with reckless abandon, this third system stalled the storm over Sussex County for three very long and extremely difficult days.
To say the area was caught off guard would be an understatement. Not one weather forecaster foresaw what was to occur over the next few days as the storm relentlessly pounded the Delaware beaches for 72 hours and not one, not two, but five consecutive high tides.
When all was said and done, boardwalks were destroyed, homes had toppled into the sea, feet of sand filled structures and overtook roadways and more than $70 million (more than $579 million if it were to happen in 2017) in damage was sustained in coastal Delaware.
The storm is considered by the United States Geological Survey to be one of the most destructive storms to ever hit the mid-Atlantic region of the country. And the facts bear it out.
During the storm, winds reached 60 miles per hour and waves crested at 40 feet just off the coast. And again, the most important fact – this continued for three long days!
It’s important to note that coastal Delaware was not as built up in the early 1960s as it is today. Still a total of 1,932 homes were damaged or destroyed during the Great Storm of 1962, according to data compiled by the University of Delaware.
Tidal flooding was widespread, not only along the Atlantic coastline, but also along Sussex County’s inland bays and rivers. Basically, everywhere you looked water was where it didn’t belong, and the destruction left behind was unimaginable.
The numbers obviously don’t compare to what they would be if the storm were to hit in 2017. But in 1962, 28 of the 29 oceanfront homes in Bethany Beach were completely destroyed, as well as every single oceanfront property in South Bethany.
In Rehoboth Beach, much of the same. And the city’s famous boardwalk was all but destroyed as well, along with several businesses and hotels.
You can see what was left of both Dolle's and the Atlantic Sands Hotel, as well as the Boardwalk, in the photo below.
It became the storm of the century in coastal Delaware and is still the weather event by which all others are measured in the area. Even hurricanes have not caused the type of damage that this nor’easter did over three incredible days in 1962.
Here are a few more highlights from the famed storm:
- Tides recorded at Cape Henlopen were more than 9 feet
- The National Guard had to evacuate parts of Lewes
- The Indian River Life-Saving Station was filled with sand and never reopened as a functioning entity
- Floodwaters in Oak Orchard were as high as 3 feet
- The Rehoboth and Bethany Beach boardwalks were essentially destroyed
- Six people were reportedly drowned by the rising sea water
The storm was devastating and for those who lived through it, it will never be forgotten.
When the storm was over, however, reality began to set in. Even in the 1960s, Sussex County’s economy was dependent on the same two industries it’s dependent on today – poultry and tourism.
The nor’easter hit less than three months before Memorial Day, and the area needed to come up with an immediate and fast course of action if they wanted to save the upcoming summer tourist season.
If they didn’t begin right away, tourists would likely stay away for the Summer of 1962, which would be a doubly difficult economic blow to the area.
So, in true Sussex County fashion, people got to work. Both of the area’s famed boardwalks were incredibly rebuilt and restored in time for Memorial Day and things slowly returned to normal. Dunes were repaired and strengthened for the future, waterfront property was cleaned up and homes were rebuilt.
Things slowly returned to normal and area officials pledged to be better prepared for a similar weather event in the future. Superstorm Sandy came pretty close, but it came and went quickly, thus preventing anything close to the same type of damage the Storm of 62 did.
Only time will tell if coastal Delaware ever gets hit with another weather event like the one it endured five-and-a-half centuries ago, though experts predict it’s all but inevitable to happen again sometime in the future.
If that’s true, we have no doubt that the good people of the Delaware beaches will once again endure and come together during a time of crisis.
We hope you enjoyed this latest installment of our historical blog series. Join us again soon as we continue looking into the long and rich history of southern Delaware.