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The Perfect Storm

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Debris littered Delaware Avenue near Funland in Rehoboth.


Waves crashed unusually high at the Indian River Inlet.

 
Beach homes sat high and not so dry at Bowers Beach. Photographs courtesy of DNREC

 

The first thing I saw was a huge wall of water,” says Harold White, of Lewes. “It was to the point of me saying to myself, ‘Good Lord, I think we better get out of here. It looks like Sussex County is going to be flooded.’”

No one had expected it. No one planned for it. On the day it struck, people had no idea how significantly it would affect their lives.

And 45 years later, memories of the Storm of ’62 have barely faded.

Like a feral animal pouncing on its unsuspecting prey, the March 1962 storm eviscerated coastal Delaware, ripping apart the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk and tearing into some buildings so ruthlessly that there was little left to show they’d existed.

Known by many names—including the Ash Wednesday Storm, the Coastal Storm of the Century and the Great Atlantic Storm of the 20th Century—the Storm of ’62 wreaked havoc from North Carolina to New York.

In Delaware, the storm took seven lives and caused more than $70 million in public and private property damages and personal property losses. That’s more than $455 million in 2006 dollars.

“It is still the coastal storm of record here,” says Wendy Carey, coastal process specialist for the University of Delaware Sea Grant program. “I think people had never before seen such extreme devastation to both life and property.”

“It was incredible,” says Michael Oates of Wilmington, director and producer of “The ’62 Storm—A Shared Response,” a documentary funded by the Delaware Humanity Forum and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. “It was horrible, terrible.”

By all accounts, it was supposed to be just another storm. The March 6 weather forecast called for a “quiet storm moving easterly across the United States and out to sea.”

In 1962 there was no Doppler Radar and only rudimentary satellite imagery. Computer forecasting was limited, says Joe Miketta, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The storm was a nor’easter, which takes its name from the direction from which the winds blow. The low-pressure systems, which pack average winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, are most common in fall and winter.

Area residents took the weather in stride. Then a high-pressure system to the north pinned the storm in place.

“It was the lingering of this storm that caused the high waves and high tides,” says Carey, who has spearheaded the university’s effort to scan and catalog photographs of the storm. “It was trapped, if you will.”

The storm stalled for five high tides. To make matters worse, it was the spring equinox and there was a new moon, which create higher tides than usual.

The storm gained fury. Sustained winds howled 35 to 45 miles per hour, with 70 mph gusts. Offshore waves climbed to more than 40 feet, while breaking waves crested at heights ranging from 20 to 30 feet.

The memory of those waves still amazes Lewes historian Hazel Brittingham, who during the storm stood on Second Street in Rehoboth Beach, watching a giant wall of water rush toward her. She compares its height to an open drawbridge. “You’re looking at it, and you’re seeing it, but you can’t believe you’re seeing it,” she says.

Jay Stevenson, then 9, recalls crossing Rehoboth Avenue to reach his home above Rehoboth Pharmacy. “There was water up to my ankles,” he says. “You could look down toward the ocean and watch the waves breaking on Dolle’s and rolling up Rehoboth Avenue.”

Dolle’s would later appear as though it had been struck by cannon fire. Stacks of wood—probably from the boardwalk—jutted from broken windows, making the landmark look more like a lumberyard than a candy shop.

Powerful winds pushed against the tide, refusing to let it recede. “Water kept building up and building up,” Miketta says. “Everything backed up.”

Maximum tides recorded at Breakwater Harbor at Cape Henlopen reached nearly 9½ feet, the highest level recorded. Oak Orchard, miles from the ocean on the northern shore of Indian River, recorded 2 to 3 feet of floodwaters. Waves up to 4 feet washed across Rehoboth Bay.

Flooding on Lewes Beach necessitated evacuations by the National Guard. “It was dangerous,” Brittingham says. “The water was 3 feet up in certain areas.”

Three days of relentless battering clawed sand from the beaches and flattened the dunes. The ocean surged inland, undermining foundations and causing homes to topple onto their faces. Other structures listed like sailboats. Many structures were simply snatched by the sea.

Even on March 8 the storm’s force was still evident. White, then the Sussex County manager for Diamond State Telephone Company, volunteered to chauffeur a company photographer and writer, who were documenting efforts to restore power.

In Rehoboth, waves had battered the front walls off the Atlantic Sands and Henlopen Hotel, leaving their interiors exposed like a child’s doll house.

Because the ocean had merged with the bays, Route 1 was flooded. White took back roads to Bethany. But the bridge on Del. 26, a quarter mile from the ocean, ended in water. White and the photographer drove inland roads toward Fenwick. “Some of my most dramatic pictures were of the terrible damage to Fenwick Island,” says White, who shot 75 slides with his own 35 mm camera.

The sea had spewed so much sand inland that the northbound lanes of the highway between Fenwick and Bethany were covered. White took the southbound lane to Bethany, where he sat on the sand to use a coin box phone that normally stood 3 feet above the ground.

For a 9-year-old Stevenson, the altered scene was exciting. He and his friends explored the snack bar in the Star of the Sea complex. “It was cockeyed, so it was like walking sidewise in the fun house of a carnival,” he says.

Despite the disaster, the area got back on its feet in short order. Rehoboth Beach and Bethany rebuilt their boardwalks before Memorial Day.

“Their livelihoods depended on the tourist seasons,” says Tony Pratt, administrator of DNREC’s Shoreline and Waterway Section. With no flood insurance, many businesses were desperate to make money. “It was all hands report to duty to try and have a summer season.”

The storm spurred new construction standards, including mandatory beach setbacks and building elevation requirements. The 1972 Beach Preservation Act gave DNREC the power to regulate coastal construction.

Replenishment projects now help preserve sand. “Waves need to expend energy,” Pratt says. “If you don’t provide enough sand to sacrifice, they’ll do it on your house.”

The 1962 storm was considered a 100-year event. Yet Delaware came close to déjà vu in 1998, when two nor’easters attacked the coast. Sustained winds reached 40 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph. Waves rose to 25 feet.

In June 1998 the Federal Emergency Management Agency named Lewes a Project Impact community, which gave it funds to retrofit structures to withstand flooding and high winds.

While forecasting and flood-safety measures have improved, experts worry about future storms.

“We are concerned, particularly with all the development that has taken place along the shore in the last 30 or 40 years,” Miketta says. “The more people and the more buildings and the more infrastructure, the more that can get damaged the next time it happens.” 

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