Fifty years have passed since a powerful nor’easter left an indelible mark on Ocean City and its residents
The roughly 1,800 permanent residents of a 1962 Ocean City all knew how to take the unique storms that frequented their coast. They’d been through nor’easters before and took them in their stride.
But when townspeople went to bed on the night of March 5th that year, they were unsuspecting that the next two days and nights would change their lives and Ocean City forever.
They were about to experience the perfect storm.
The night’s rain continued through the next day. A nor’easter had begun plowing its way up the Delmarva coast. Traditionally, a storm such as this blew in-and-out-of-town in a day, dumping measurable rain accompanied by gale force winds. It would have politely left the town soaked and slightly flooded.
This “Great Storm of ’62” was eerily different. As storm-force rains and wind broke across the peninsula, the tide rose. Ocean water pushed up into the Synepuxent and Assawoman Bays. Normally, the tidal water would flow naturally back out to sea on the next low tide. But powerful winds and water kept pushing into the bays. The water had no place to go but up, over the town, merging with the sea. As the next high tide arrived, flooded streets rose higher, quickly and without apology.
Residents awoke to cars floating in the alleys and no way to escape the rising water. Firemen and “towners” alike heard those now-famous words of Capt. Crawford Savage: “Boys, it’s making weather!” By evening on the 6th, people grasped for any way to evacuate. Firemen had already dispatched every boat they could commandeer, searching for families on porches who wanted out. The Maryland National Guard in Salisbury launched their only “duck” at the foot of the bridge. Berlin school busses lined the bridge’s western side to drive fleeing evacuees to higher ground and the safety of the Berlin School.
A mind-boggling coordination of boats and rafts, fire trucks and “the duck” quickly mounted, trying to beat a dangerous water’s rise. Telephones were out. The only form of communication was by ham radio, a newly established “hobby” that quickly became a critical rescuer, relaying to the fire dept. locations of those who desperately wanted out.
Few people had homes above 70th St. then. They were swiftly isolated from rescue when fierce moving waters cut a new inlet across the island. The height of the waves alone made firemen and volunteers turn back.
Devastation was instantly everywhere. Great chunks of the boardwalk were floating through town, including one huge section with benches and its street lamp still intact.
Punishing winds and pounding water lasted three high tides. The famous boardwalk was destroyed, but the huge pilings and remnants of houses became lurking dangers to other buildings and rescue safety. Motels and hotels fell into the ocean. Those who didn’t get out earlier didn’t escape at all. One-third of the town’s population either chose or were forced to ride out the storm in a watery darkness.
When dawn broke on March 7th, the nor’easter began its move up the coast. Floodwaters and destruction remained in its wake. Ocean and bay had united, leaving Ocean City completely covered in water and debris. In a few days, when streets weren’t under water and the sky was clear and blue, town residents could quickly see the secondary horror of The Great March Storm: sand. Sand covered everything, everywhere. Along the beach, first floors had either disappeared or filled with sand. Piles in the streets towered to 15 feet. Sand in houses was measured in feet, seldom in inches. In the days and months that followed, the seaside town was crawling with bulldozers and rifled National Guardsmen. The storm damage had exceeded even that of the August Hurricane of 1933, which famously cut the Inlet between South Ocean City and Assateague, across the old fish pounds.
Yet again the people of Ocean City rallied. There was little time to ponder. With the help of government employees sent to town to assist and hundreds of selfless volunteers shoveling sand out of homes and businesses, Ocean City dusted itself off, put on a fresh coat of paint and miraculously had its “Open” sign hanging by the time the summer tourists rolled into town.
For the many who suffered severe losses, the March storm ended their dreams in Ocean City. They packed up their hopes, many leaving everything else behind. More than 200 left their properties, damaged houses standing, to the government bulldozers that would level their structures. Flattened houses, lots reduced to sand, were everywhere. Property values plummeted.
Some folks would later claim that the Great Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 had destroyed the peaceful hometown of Ocean City. Others were made rich by it. Seeing the future, savvy land investors snapped up all the beachfront and bayside land they could get their hands on, buying Ocean City on the cheap. Within a couple of years, the sound of pile drivers drowned out seagulls and surf. On those pilings stood a new, almost unheard of structure called the “condominium.”
In so many ways, both then and now, the Great Storm of 1962 changed the landscape of Ocean City forevermore.