The Perfect Storm

The vicious Storm of '62 devastated the coast--and taught us a few lessons that guide us today.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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.” 

D

 

 

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February 2016

Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

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Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
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1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
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1200 N DuPont Highway
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Telephone: 302-629-6611x2446
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Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
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1200 N DuPont Highway
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More information

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View map »


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Kimmel Center - Commonwealth Plaza
300 S. Broad St.
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Delaware State University will feature the following events and exhibitions during its 2016 Black History Month celebration: Wednesday, Feb. 3 Black Lives Matter Symposium Documentary...

Cost: FREE and open to the public

Where:
Delaware State University
1200 N DuPont Highway
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

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Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

More information

Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
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Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


Website »

More information

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Cost: $0-14

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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
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Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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801 Middleford Rd.
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Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

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Philadelphia, PA  19104
View map »


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View map »


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Cost: Free

Where:
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View map »


Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
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Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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View map »


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Where:
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Show More...
Show Less...

Our Winter Group Show features oil paintings by Rosemary Castiglioni, Jim Gears and Mary Ann Weselyk. Still-life paintings with subtle color variations by...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Station Gallery
3922 Kennett Pike
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Telephone: 302-654-8638
Website »

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Features activities and crafts that help visitors learn about local and national political roles in environmental conservation. Visitors can learn about the battle that politicians fought for a...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Delaware Museum of Natural History
4840 Kennett Pike
Wilmington, DE  19807
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The Philly Home Show will inspire your inner HGTV star at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia from Feb. 12–14 and 19–21. The show will feature highly interactive...

Cost: $13

Where:
Pennsylvania Convention Center
1101 Arch St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Explore some of the diverse ways that human beings have understood sex and sexuality, gender and gender diversity in this small but broad new exhibition, presented in conjunction with the 2015-2016...

Cost: Free with Museum Admission.

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his golden touch? That is the question to be answered—not with chests full of gold, but with a spectacular array of ancient artifacts,...

Cost: Adults $20; seniors $18; students (with ID) $15; children (ages 6–17) $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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Guests can explore three floors of exhibitions in the Visitor Center, stroll along the river through dozens of historic structures from the Industrial Revolution, and explore the gardens and...

Cost: $0-14

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Rd
Wilmington, DE  19807
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Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
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Penn Museum opens the world premiere exhibition The Golden Age of King Midas—featuring ancient treasures on loan from the Republic of Turkey—with a spectacular daylong public...

Cost: $15

Where:
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and CAMP Rehoboth will co-present "Tab Hunter Confidential" and "Portrait of a Serial Monogamist" as part of its annual Another Take...

Cost: $8

Where:
Metropolitan Community Church
19369 Plantation Rd.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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"La Sylphide" shares the beautiful and romantic story of our hero, James—a young Scottish farmer who, on the eve of hid wedding, abandons his betrothed, Effie, after being...

Cost: $25

Where:
Salesanium School
1801 North Broom St.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Sponsor: Academy of International Ballet
Telephone: 1-866-908-5666
Contact Name: Denis Gronostayskiy
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Venture back with us for an evening where we re-imagine the Victorian Industrial Age as seen through our steam-powered, futuristic goggles.  Our biggest fundraiser of the year and all proceeds...

Cost: $100-$110

Where:
Smyrna Opera House
7 West South Street
Smyrna, DE  19977
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A spoiled orphan girl is sent to live with her uncle on the Yorkshire moors and discovers renewed life, for herself and her sickly cousin, in bringing her dead aunt’s secret garden back to...

Cost: $15–$18

Where:
The Secret Garden
47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Everett Theatre
Telephone: 302-540-8561
Contact Name: Chris Everett
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Location: St. Mark’s High School, 2501 Pike Creek Road, Wilmington Time: Registration: 11:30 a.m. Race: 12:30 p.m. Fee: $25 (until Thursday, Feb. 11), $35 after and day of event...

Where:
, DE

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Location: Beebe Healthcare’s Medical Center, 424 Savannah Road, Lewes Date: Saturday, Feb. 13 (and the second Saturday of each month) Time: 9 a.m. Fee: Free For more...

Where:
, DE

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Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

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