Remembering the Ash
Wednesday Storm of 1962
Coastal Review Online
Unimaginative meteorologists called
it “The Great
Atlantic Coast Storm of 1962.” The late Aycock Brown, though, was a
more lyrical sort. As the longtime publicist for Dare County, Brown had
a flair for turning a phrase. He was also a religious man. Brown looked
at the calendar and noted that the great storm had hit on the first
Wednesday of Lent. Thus, he christened it with the name that
come down through history, The Ash Wednesday Storm.
It arrived 50 years ago this week.
days, it lashed almost 500 miles of the Eastern Seaboard, from the
Outer Banks to Cape Cod, with unremitting winds that topped 70 miles an
hour. It hurled 30-foot waves against sand dunes and beach towns,
cutting new inlets, flooding roads and collapsing buildings. Atlantic
City’s famous steel pier crumpled under the onslaught; Ocean City’s
boardwalk splintered. Assateague Island in Maryland was so
inundated that plans to develop the island were scrapped, and it later
became a national park.
Nor’easters don’t generally kill, but
one was done, 40 people were dead. The price tag for the damage was
later estimated at $500 million in current dollars. The U.S. Geological
Survey considers it to be one of the 10 worst storms in the United
States in the 20th century.
Though no one died in North Carolina,
northern Outer Banks were staggered by the blow. Sixty buildings were
destroyed outright. More than 1,300 others were heavily damaged. A new
inlet flowed near Buxton, cutting off southern Hatteras Island.
“It was total devastation,” remembers
a freshman at N.C. State University at the time who went home to Nags
Heads the weekend after the storm to help with the clean-up. “It looked
like a tidal wave had hit.”
The Ash Wednesday Storm and Hurricane
1951 remain the yardsticks against which other coastal storms in the
state are measured.
It came with no warning on the
moonless night of
March 7. This was before the days of all-seeing satellites and clever
computer models. “We didn’t have the modern technologies we have
today,” noted Stockton “Stocky” Midgett, 84. “The weather on the radio
was all local.”
But there were signs of trouble. A
northeast wind had been blowing for a couple of days. Small
warnings were up north of Hatteras. The Weather Bureau issued a gale
warning for Tuesday night.
Inland, a blizzard had blanketed much
Carolina with snow. North, in the Shenandoah Valley, as much as 23
inches covered the ground.
Yet, there was no hint of what was to
come in the
Wednesday morning newspapers. Gary Powers dominated the front pages.
The U2 spy pilot who had been captured and later released by the
Russians had testified Tuesday before a Senate committee. The morning
newspaper in Norfolk offered encouraging news that no significant snow
was expected in the Tidewater. By the time its carriers tried to
deliver the paper to the Outer Banks, though, the flooding was so
severe that they couldn’t get through.
The storm struck at the worst
possible time. The
moon was closest to the Earth, and the sun and the moon were aligned.
These astronomical conditions produced the feared perigean spring tides
that only occur every two years. The storm would continue through five
cycles of maximum high tides.
David Stick, then the chairman of the
Board of Commissioners, quickly found out what that meant. The late
historian and author, who would write the definitive book on the storm,
left his home on Colington Island before noon Wednesday with his three
sons, heading to Kitty Hawk School, the county’s disaster control
center. No stranger to driving on sand or through low water, Stick
pressed forward in his Jeep station wagon. In Kill Devil Hills, near
the Avalon Beach bypass, his car drowned out.
“The stupidest thing I ever did,”
Stick told an
interviewer in 2008. “It (the Jeep) was a box, and it was rocking back
and forth. The water came up in the car and we watched a cottage over
by the ocean disintegrate and then the various parts came by us on both
sides, though fortunately none hit us.”
After an hour of terror, a friend
vehicle to safety and he continued on to the school, and “from then on
I didn’t leave that school for about two or three days,” he said.
Cut Off in Buxton
Carol Dillon remembers how hard the
blowing and how loud the ocean roared that Wednesday morning. She and
her family lived in their motel in Buxton. She took comfort in the wide
beach that fronted the village.
“I remember looking out the window
this wave come down the road and into the parking lot,” she said. “It
was the first time we ever had water in the parking lot.”
Dillon would find out later
“Gem.” The 501-foot Liberian tanker was taking on water as she
struggled through heavy seas near Ocracoke. She would break in half
that night, killing one aboard.
Neither did Dillon know
that morning that
she and her neighbors were cut off from the rest of the world. Storm
waves had pushed through Hatteras Island, creating a new inlet between
Buxton and Avon.
“We were isolated for
days,” Dillon said. “They had to bring in food by ferry.”
Midgett nearly became the storm’s
in North Carolina when he and others tried to cross the new inlet in a
friend’s small dory. “I like to got drowned in the new inlet that was
cut,” he said. “The current was running through so strong that it
nearly threw me overboard. They had to grab me by my legs to save me.”
Midgett and his late brothers ran a
bus line from
Hatteras to Manteo. “I was driving that bus when I was 10 years old,”
he said. “I had to sit on a pillow and look through the driving wheel.”
Having a bus also meant having a
garage to store
and work on the buses. Garages naturally become the final resting
places for old cars, many of which found another life as inlet fill.
“We put a bunch of old cars in that inlet to try and fill her up,”
Midgett said. “Everybody who had old cars dumped them in the inlet.”
They didn’t work, Dillon said.
Neither did the
old drums dumped into the break. The inlet was briefly bridged and
finally filled by two dredges.
No one died on the Banks that day
because of the
heroism of many. Stick’s book The Ash Wednesday Storm recounts many
acts of valor that undoubtedly saved many lives. In Nags Head, Ephey
Priest rescued so many people from flooded houses with his road grader
that no one ever knew the exact number. Men in Kill Devil Hills
repeatedly launched little skiffs into the tempest, checking house
after house and rescuing all they found. They would return home, change
into dry clothes and go out again.
In Kitty Hawk, Sam Beacham and Bill
attached a small outboard motor to a skiff that had washed up on the
U.S. 158 Bypass. They plucked people waving from the rooftops of houses
or stranded in flooded cars. Quidley, a Specialist 5 in the Army, was
later awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his heroism.
Far from his home in Kitty Hawk that
Guardsman Gary Perry was on the deck of his ship in Guantanamo Bay. A
radioman came topside.
“You Perry?” he asked.
Perry confirmed that he was.
“You’re from the Outer Banks?” the
Yes, again, said Perry,
“They ain’t there no more,” the man
It would be three weeks before Perry,
mayor pro temp of Kitty Hawk, returned to Norfolk to learn that the
Banks had survived. But it was a near thing.
Tursi is the author of three books and a 30-year newspaper veteran, who
is now an assistant director at the N.C. Coastal Federation and the
editor of Coastal Review Online. Before joining the federation in 2002,
Frank was the senior environmental reporter in North Carolina. His
writing has won numerous state and national awards. An avid fisherman
and model boat builder, he lives in Swansboro with his wife, Doris.
This story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal
news and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read
other stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)