The boundary between ocean and land is a fragile one, and in 1962, Delaware residents got a reminder of just how fragile. A massive nor’easter pounded the coast for days and smashed through the boundary, toppling buildings and turning roads into rivers and yards into beaches covered with sand.
The Storm of ‘62 was 60 years ago this month. It goes by other names; some call it the Ash Wednesday Storm, and the U.S. Weather Bureau tried to name it “The Great Atlantic Storm,” although that didn't catch on quite as well.
The bulk of the damage seems to have occurred March 6-8. The storm happened as three pressure systems collided while the spring equinox was already bringing high tides, according to the National Park Service.
The slow-moving storm ground up the coast of Delaware, costing about $50 million in damages, or more than $450 million today, according to the Delaware Public Archives. Forty people died in all, seven of them from Delaware.
That storm could end up being a dress rehearsal for a worse disaster in the area.
“If there was a storm of a similar magnitude and duration of the Storm of ‘62, we could potentially experience greater impacts because since the 1960s, we’ve had a very large population growth in Sussex County,” said Danielle Swallow, a coastal hazard specialist for Delaware Sea Grant. Add to that higher average tides because of sea level rise.
“That storm surge that came with the Storm of ‘62 would be packed on top of higher sea level today,” Swallow said.
She also noted that lots of that population growth has come with construction in floodplains. That floodplain in its natural state helps move and store water in a storm, she said, but we’re now building impervious surfaces and otherwise altering floodplains, and losing wetlands.
Also, wetlands that would naturally migrate inland with higher seas may also now be blocked by infrastructure, leaving wetlands in danger of just turning into open water, Swallow said.
Looking back at the damage from the 1962 storm, Delaware Public Archives has released new photos in recognition of the anniversary. We’ve combed through those for some of the more striking images, shared here along with survivor accounts and newspaper coverage from the time.
Of the seven Delawareans who died in the storm, six were children from one family.
Newspapers including the Morning News and Evening Journal reported that John Waters woke up in his Bowers Beach home on March 6 to find floodwater sweeping in. He realized he wouldn’t be able to drive out, so he got out of the car and tried to move them to a nearby oyster shucking house on stilts.
He’d only transferred one son and his wife, who was 9 months pregnant, over to the shack when the water began sweeping the car away with his mother-in-law and seven children inside. One of them, a 7-year-old boy, tried to climb out the window and was carried off by the water. His body was found days later by a couple of fishermen looking for a boat.
The National Guard rescued Waters’ mother-in-law and a daughter from the car, but found four children dead in the car and another body nearby. The children who died ranged in age from 15 months to 12 years old.
The same papers also reported that Nancy O’Brien, 41, the wife of a Maj. Richard O’Brien from Dover Air Force Base, died in the storm. The major said he had gone to work at the base, when he learned of significant damage at Slaughter Beach. He went to check on their home there, and found it destroyed and his wife missing. Police searched for a week, but couldn’t find her.
Fishermen from Milford found Nancy O’Brien’s body in April while riding in their boat along Cedar Creek.
Stories from survivors
Survivors of the nor’easter told some of their stories at an event March 4 at Lewes Public Library. Here are portions of them, edited for clarity and length.
I was a young Nancy Gibbons (age 14) in Dagsboro, and I lived on the road to the power plant because my father was a superintendent at the Indian River Power Plant.
When the storm first hit, we didn’t think much of it. But Dad got an alert from the power plant that it was going to be worse than they thought. We lived on the river, and he kept a pontoon raft, and the reason he had a pontoon raft was if something ever happened, the road was down or anything like that, he could always get to the plant, riding on the raft.
They called off school, and Daddy said, "Well you’re not doing anything, ride around with me because you know the area, and we’ll see how bad it is." So for days we rode on the pontoon raft. We couldn’t get to the coastal side, because the dam in Millsboro had gone out, and the Indian River Inlet bridge had gone down. So we saw floating dead chickens and floating horses and cars, and all kinds of stuff all around, and it was just amazing to us.
We didn’t get back to school for the rest of the year. Lord Baltimore (school) was the main center where the National Guard stayed, and some of them stayed at John Clayton, and they didn’t fully get electricity on the beach side restored until July first of ‘62. And they could only do it with the National Guard’s services coming down here and putting the homes back up and doing everything, and it was a very fraught time. You think we have a shortage now with the supply chain. Well fortunately at that time, a lot of our supply was locally raised. My parents had a barn in the back and my mom canned food and stuff, but there was a real problem with people that couldn’t get supplies, and you couldn’t get out, because everything was so flooded.
We were all traumatized.
You just didn’t think that it could ever happen. And we didn’t really know if this area would come out of it or not. And then after that, people got so they wouldn’t talk about it. And I don’t know if that was because they didn’t want to tell that it happened, because they couldn’t sell their property. I don’t know why that happened, but it was not a common thing of conversation. ‘We had the storm, we got over it’ kind of thing. But I didn't get over it. Because I was right in the middle of it.
My home was Ocean City, Maryland at the time.
We experienced the exact same storm (as Delaware) pretty much. What happened was, it was just the middle of the week, my grandmother had come over for dinner, which she often did, and when she went to go home, she saw that the water was up to her hubcaps, and she said, “I don’t think I can get home.” So she came back upstairs and we started playing cards, and then the electricity started flickering on and off.
And we didn’t have a guest room at the time, so my grandmother slept with me. But she was a survivor of the storm of 1933, and that storm was actually more catastrophic than the storm of ‘62 was, if anybody remembers that storm actually cut through and created the Ocean City inlet.
Since my grandmother had survived ‘33, I’m pretty sure she was probably experiencing a little post traumatic stress, and so she didn’t sleep all night, which meant I didn’t sleep all night.
And before I knew it, my dad was pulling me out of the bed. I still had my pajamas on. We put some galoshes on, and he hoisted me on an (amphibious vehicle) that had been going up and down Philadelphia Avenue, which is a main drag in Ocean City.
And since there was no storm prep, we didn’t really know what was happening. My dad, he was a hunter and he had just put on some hunting boots, some hip boots, and he still had his hunting jacket on, and he just hoisted my mom, my grandmother and I onto this (vehicle). And we didn’t cry, but the look that we gave each other, and then leaving my father behind – I don’t need to write anything down that I can look at, notes, I remember this like it happened yesterday.
Once the storm had calmed down, my mom and dad had just built an apartment building up on 92nd Street on the oceanfront, and they were really worried about that because they had put in every dime and nickel they had into this apartment building so that they could generate some rental income. And so we got to fly up in the National Guard helicopter, and we flew overtop of 92nd Street, and there was nothing there.
A sofa and one lamp was all that was left.
My dad didn’t make out so well (with insurance) … so he lost everything as a result of that storm.
Before we knew it there were bulldozers pushing sand back out to the beach, and then Mayor (Hugh) Cropper said, “We have got to get this little town up and running as soon as possible, can we do it before Memorial Day?”
And you know it was really a miracle what happened, after the storm went back out in the ocean it was like everybody together collectively made that happen, did everything they could to try to get ready for the summer season. And it did happen.
Many thanks to Delaware Public Archives for making these images available. Find all the photos here.
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