50 years ago: The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962

Guest post by Ric Werme

This week marks the 50th anniversary of a destructive nor’easter named “The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962″ by the NWS and just “The Ash Wednesday Storm” by others. I lived in Ohio at the time, but my grandparents owned a summer house on Long Beach Island, a barrier island in New Jersey that faces the Atlantic Ocean. So, it’s a good time to talk about nor’easters in general and one little spot in particular.

Demise of "Driftwood"

My grandparent's summer home, Driftwood, blown over and destroyed by the nor'easter.

Barrier Islands

To a geologist, a barrier island is an ephemeral structure. They exist thanks to waves and tide bringing sand onto a sand bar creating a barrier between ocean and bay. Onshore winds blow sand toward the bay side and also build up dunes above the beach. Big storms erode both the beach and dunes. Eventually the island moves towards the land, and offshore erosion and rivers brings sand back to the ocean and the process repeats. There are various other interesting sand movements, e.g. “littoral drift,” the transport of sand next to the beach, but we’re going to stick mainly to weather.

Driftwood in happier days

Driftwood in better days, likely the late 1940s. Tall, narrow, and not built attached to pilings, it was able to survive the Hurricane of 1944 but not the Nor'easter of 1962.


Barrier island are great places to spend the summer, so people build houses there and generally expect the houses to remain in place. This strategy works for a while, and summer trips to Harvey Cedars remain among my most cherished childhood memories. (Several locations on Long Beach Island have odd names, e.g. Ship Bottom and Loveladies.)

Houses on the ocean side of the island can remain for decades, especially if various attempts are made by homeowners, government, or the Army Corp of Engineers to stabilize or replenish the beach and adjacent sand dunes. However, coastal storms can make permanent changes overnight, even to the strongest defenses people have erected. Some of the most memorable storms along the Atlantic coast have been hurricanes, those of 1938, 1944, Carol and four others in the 1950s remain in living memory in New England and mid-Atlantic. Except for the storms in the 1950s, hurricanes are relatively rare and not our focus today.

Northeasters …

March 6th, 0100 EST

"Daily Weather Map" for 1962 Mar 6, 0100 EST. Note the closely spaced isobars to the north of the storm due to a block high pressure system. These caused hurricane force winds and a severe storm surge.

… or nor’easters, or coastal extratropical storms, form from the combination of cold air from Canada meeting with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico or the subtropical Atlantic. Whereas a hurricane is powered by the temperature difference between sea level and the upper troposphere, nor’easters are powered by the temperature difference of adjacent air masses. Both are heat engines and use energy released as water vapor condenses. Hurricanes can form almost anywhere there is warm sea water and other triggers, nor’easters tend to form (or reform) on the southeastern coast and follow the coast into the Canadian Maritime provinces.

Extratropical storms are broader than most hurricanes. In hurricanes, concern focuses on where the eye is, as the wind is strongest just to the west of the eye. In nor’easters, the wind field is much broader. South of the storm center is generally warm air, which is blown up and over cold air to the north. That uplift produces the rain and snow, and the greatest storminess is north of the low. The ground level wind there blows from the northeast, hence the name.

Inland areas look to a rain/snow line – if Boston is getting snow, Concord NH may be too far away from the storm to have a heavy snowfall. If Boston gets rain, Concord may get a foot (30 cm) of snow. After the storm, a high pressure system often moves down and the pressure gradient between it and the departing storm gives us strong northwest winds for a day or two.

If conditions are just right, an offshore storm will intensify rapidly. After people started saying the storm will “bomb out,” the NWS added “bombogenesis” to the meteorological lexicon. (Sadly, no one has come up with a better name.) If this happens when there is a high pressure system blocking the path, the storm stalls, and what had started out as an ordinary nor’easter becomes a historic event.

The “Great Atlantic Storm of 1962″

That’s what happened fifty years ago – the storm stalled off New Jersey. These storms aren’t measured by hours, but by high tides. Worse, it was near a “Proxigean High Tide” when the new moon occurs when the Moon is at a closer than usual perigee. The storm brought hurricane force winds and a protracted assault on beach and dunes. Inland it brought snow as far south as Alabama and freezing temperatures to Florida. Again, not our focus.

Harvey Cedars was about to bear the brunt of the storm:

Over a stretch of about 600 miles, the wind pushed the water ahead of it in long swells that rose 30 feet high in the open ocean. By the time these reached the shore they were traveling at freight train speed. As the waves reached the beaches, they mounted to the height of a three- or four-story building. (Records are incomplete because the storm destroyed the recording devices on Atlantic City’s Steel Pier.) The Jersey Shore had never seen anything like it and Harvey Cedars didn’t stand a chance.

Mayor Thomas kept waiting for the wind to shift. “It always does,” he said. “As soon as it backs around to the northwest, everyone starts to breath easier.” Nobody in Harvey Cedars breathed easily for three days and six high tides. The high tide early Tuesday morning took out the dunes and undercut bulkheads. The high tide that night wiped out the beach. The high tide Wednesday morning floated houses off their foundations, broke roads and dug new inlets across town. The high tide Wednesday night pushed the debris into whatever structures were still standing. The high tide Thursday morning was remarked on because it wasn’t quite as high as the high tide the night before. By Thursday night the storm had begun moving out, but the last high tide laid in yet more water which washed through the new inlets, one at 79th Street and the other at Bergen Avenue.

Friday morning was clear and sunny. Everything was calm and sunny. Except there were no dunes, little beach and few houses. Near Atlantic Avenue, a wave that broke gently on the strand washed westward over the level, destroyed roadbed, to the bay, with nothing to block its progress. When it was over what was left of Harvey Cedars looked like a war zone.

These are not "stilt" houses, they are houses built on pilings but the sand under them has been washed away. Click for a larger image.

My grandparent’s house was on 80th street and was pushed over onto the neighboring building. 259 other buildings in Harvey Cedars were wrecked. The Ship’s Wheel (the main source of beach toys, ice cream, and Pez candy) was washed into the bay. The larger homes in Loveladies were pretty much all destroyed. Some of the accounts of people’s struggles to survive in the cold and dark were amazing. (The police chief from a town to the south had a heart attack. It was impossible to get him to a hospital, and I believe he did not survive.)

Months later the breaches were filled in, the boulevard that runs the length of the island was repaired. Eventually my uncle built a house on stilts that was an okay house, but just wasn’t worth naming. (The old house was named Driftwood because it had been relocated by hurricanes in the past. I don’t think my grandparents were pulling my leg….) New houses were built attached to deep pilings which has helped in subsequent storms.

The Ship’s Wheel II was built, and development resumed, even accelerated, the boulevard was widened and stop lights added. Sadly, LBI is not the place I remembered. My uncle eventually sold the property, but cherished memories remain.

Storm damage

The further north along the Atlantic coast you go, the more important nor’easters become in terms of damage. The Gulf Stream peels away from the US coast off on North Carolina, and that makes for a good dividing line. North of there hurricanes have trouble maintaining their strength, and in New England, the most damaging hurricanes on the coast are also the fastest movers that haven’t had the chance to weaken much. They are quite rare, so over time it’s really the nor’easters that cause the most damage.

One remarkable thing about the current active hurricane period that started in 1995 is that New England hasn’t had a repeat of the big storms in the previous period that I mentioned above. Hurricane Irene had a chance, but much of its winds lifted off the ground and wind damage was much less than expected (rain and flooding, the hallmark of inland hurricane damage, was extensive).

So instead of memorable hurricanes, we note nor’easters like the Blizzard of 1978 which was the biggest storm I’ve experienced in New England, the Perfect Storm in 1991, the 1993 Storm of the Century, and the April Fools’ Day Blizzard of 1997. The 1993 storm’s long track and wide reach impacted some 100,000,000 people, and killed at least 243 of them – “a mortality over three times the total from Category 4 hurricanes Andrew (1992) and Hugo (1989), even though these two storms struck near large centers of coastal population.”

The next big coastal storm

I don’t know if it will be hurricane or nor’easter, I don’t know if it will be this year or the next. I do know it’s going to happen, and given the development over the last 50 years on Long Beach Island and elsewhere, I know the damage will be incredible. With luck there won’t be another storm this big for another 50 years.

References

http://www.southjerseynews.com/shore/m030402a.htm: A 2002 retrospective look at the Ash Wednesday storm on Long Beach Island.

http://lbi.net/rlw/northeas.asp: Another article, titled Really Lousy Weather. It has a couple photos from during the storm. One that didn’t make the article shows a wave breaking on a house two blocks from my grandparent’s house.

http://home.comcast.net/~jvhc/
This has several photo collections, including comparsion photos of damage and recovery from the 1962 and several subsequent storms.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXaP_ovTiPU
This is a copy of an 8 mm film made on Long Beach Island after the 1962 storm after the breaches were filled in and the main road reopened. I used a frame of the film for the lead image.

Morphological Impacts of the March 1962 Storm on Barrier Islands of the Middle Atlantic States is a report from the Army Corp of Engineers on the storm. The site includes photos or the aftermath on Long Beach Island.

http://climate.virginia.edu/vca/vca211.html: This dates back to when Pat Michaels was the Virginia State Climatologist. Virginia was also clobbered by this storm. The link starts with a good description of cyclones (extratropical storms), then has brief accounts of the 1962 and 1993 storms including the mortality quote used above. The images that should go with the story are unavailable at present.

http://coastlinesproject.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/the-ash-wednesday-storm-1962/: This excerpt from the book Just Seconds From the Ocean has a good description of barrier island movement that is quite different (and possibly better) than mine. It also has a warmist slant, but notes the impact of a 1980 prediction of catastrophic sea level rise by Stephen Schneider that was retracted nine years later.

Postscript – Barnegat Light

One structure that survived the storm was, and is Barnegat Light at the north end of the Island. It is no longer in service as a warning signal, but is now a state park, well worth the visit, and no article about Long Beach Island is complete without a reference to it.

Barnegat Light

Barnegat Light in the 1940s. It should look about the same today.

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26 thoughts on “50 years ago: The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962

  1. We recently moved to Lewes, DE, which is the southern terminus of the Cape May/Lewes ferry. We’ve actually on the Delaware Bay, but the ’62 storm (and one in 1998) wreaked havoc on the beach area from storm surge, flooding that area. The ocean side of Delaware, of course, had it much worse. A University of Delaware web page gave this description:

    The slow-moving late winter coastal storm was unusual in its development, composition and behavior. Two low-pressure systems formed off the U.S. East Coast, held in place by a high-pressure system that was stationary over eastern Canada. The high-pressure system stalled the forward movement of the coastal storm, resulting in the generation of record-setting winds, waves and tides.

    Estimates of deep water waves off the Delaware coast were reported to be 40 feet in height, and waves intersecting the coast in Delaware’s surf zone reached heights estimated between 20 and 30 feet. Steady winds of gale force (35-45 miles per hour) from the northeast, with gusts up to 70 miles per hour, resulted in a continuously elevated tidal water level, or storm surge, of 3-5 feet above normal.

  2. The weather strikes back!

    I wonder … what would happen if it were finally proven that some method could accurately predict such storms. What would people do?

  3. I remember driving along Ocean Avenue after that storm, past an area with numerous large guest houses along the beach. One in particular, an old, four story house, had sustained serious damage on its South side. All that remained of the South end of the second, third and fourth floors were “peninsulas” of flooring, each topped by a toilet, supported by the main plumbing tree.

  4. [Snip - OT]

    If you can’t post in Tips & Notes, then please don’t use one of the topmost comments in my posts, especially one that required a lot of research. Please wait for a couple days or until the next Open Thread.

  5. Good post, Rick. Beachcombing along the RI shoreline still turns up remnants of cottages destroyed in the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes – mostly it’s just well-worn pebbles from bricks now although decades ago one could find fragments of foundations. And yet people still continue to build as close as they can to the waves.

  6. Nice reminder that extreme weather predates CO2 spewing SUVs.

    Longshore bars are a particularly pleasant and idiotic place to build. There have been periods in geologic history of extremely fast sea level rise, when bars have been drowned and encased in deep water shale. They then make rather nice oil fields.

  7. Great Article. My parents rented and old beachfront house on 73rd Street in Harvey Cedars from the early 40’s, so I pretty much grew up there in the summers. Fortunately, the house was behind a cut out in a huge bulkhead built to protect the Small’s estate which had been purchased by Villa Maris. Although the bulkhead was gone, it somewhat protected the homes on 73rd Street including an old church on the north side. Our house was picked up and moved but the owner, Doc Heilman had it replaced on pilings. He then offered it for sale to my mother for the large sum of $14,000 which included the main house, a small cottage and a second empty lot. She turned it down. The house still stands and has been preserved by the Long Beach Island Preservation Committee as an historical site – circa 1900.

    I recall driving through in June of 62 and Harvey Cedars was almost completely gone. A few housetops and parts of auto sticking out of the sand. Hell, the local bar was even gone. The devistation was unimaginable.

    The dunes now have been rebuilt and added to. Will they withstand the next attack? I hope so.

  8. As a former Denezen of the the South Coast of Oregon, This is all too familiar, Oregon’s got its
    share of developent where it ought not to be, Add to the wind and rain , the threat of Tsumanis,
    both regional and trans-pacific. Yet development is still done nearly on the shore, now I beleive that if you are expecting to lose or displace the house, fine. It’s up you, God and the Insurance
    company…
    Just don’t expect-as some do for the Government to bail you out…

  9. And people say that living in the Sacramento Valley is crazy because it can flood here and we’re in CA for pete’s sakes, only a hundred miles from the BIGGEST AND MOST DANGEROUS PLATE BOUNDARY IN THE WHOLE WORLD, maybe the universe.

    I’ll take CA any day compared to storms like this, hurricanes, and monster tornadoes. :)

  10. My earliest memories are driving along the Shore to see the damaged homes. For years I had been trying to figure out which hurricane caused the damage. Thanks Ric for filling in this part of my early years. I would have been three at the time and living on the mainland just across the bay although a little further South in Somer’s Point.

  11. My wife’s family has lived year-round in Harvey Cedars for over 60 years. I lived on 77th St in Harvey Cedars for 5 years, from 1992 to 1997. The 62 storm actually cut through the island to form a new inlet right at where 79th St is now. After the 62 storm the infrastructure of the island was rebuilt to raise the levels of the streets. The ocean block streets were sloped to help quickly remove any water that washed over the dunes in large storms. These improvements were the only thing that prevented a repeat of the damage when another large storm hit during my first winter living down the shore in 92.

  12. Great article. My wife & I get out to Ocean City every once in a while (preferrably before Memorial Day, and never after the 4th of July), & just a casual look around suggests that they’ve spent tens of millions to reclaim beaches and shore up the dunes. & it’s all going to get washed away in just one or two storms.

  13. Wouldn’t global warming reduce the incidence and power of nor’easters? If the northern latitudes warm more than the southern as AGW theory predicts, then the temperature difference between air masses ought to be lessened, shouldn’t it? Thus lessened the power and frequency of these kinds of storms. No wonder we have been spared landfall of big storms more and more. Thank God for warming!

  14. The date of this Nor’easter is interesting.
    I had a faint memory of some huge flooding event in Germany at that time*), and found it described here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Sea_flood_of_1962

    From that link:
    The flood was caused by the Vincinette low-pressure system, approaching the German Bight from the southern Polar Sea. A European windstorm with peak wind speeds of 200 km/h pushed water into the German Bight, leading to a water surge the dykes could not withstand.

    That was on Feb 16th/17th 1962.
    I wonder what the general conditions were like in the North Atlantic that year, and if there might have been conditions which caused these, or if this is sheer coincidence.

    ——————-
    *) This event stuck in my mind because the Minister who led the rescue effort later became chancellor of West Germany. He was given to lecture his fellow international leaders on everything, especially economics …

  15. Name it … and … claim it!

    Got to tally up those TC numbers … bayyyyyyyyyyyybeeeeeeee!

  16. It wasn’t just the US Atlantic coast. I was a schollboy in Cornwall at the time and I remember our train from Hayle to Penzance being halted at Marazion because the trackbed had been washed away. We were taken on to school in double decker buses and I could see the devastation from the upper deck windows. Huge granite blocks on the harbour wall that weighed tons were just lifted and thrown aside. The promenade from Penzance to Newlyn was washed out and houses destroyed. I remember seeing scores of ships taking shelter in the bay.
    Some photos here

    http://picturepenzance.co.uk/photos/showimage.php?i=14759&c=373

    And here

    http://freepages.family.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~treevecwll/pzseaashwed.htm

  17. Ric,
    Nice story and history. As a small child, I watched the 1954 hurricane come ashore on Cape Cod, and though I was very young, I still clearly remember giant waves crashing on the roadway 12 feet above the beach… a beach on which I had played in the sand only 2 days before. I now own a cottage on that same beach, but its foundation stands 48 feet above mean high water, safely out of reach of even the strongest storm.

  18. Ric Werme: “This week marks the 50th anniversary of a destructive nor’easter named “The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962″ by the NWS and just “The Ash Wednesday Storm” by others.”

    Sobering; but try “The Ash Wednesday Firestorm” 1983 on the coast of Bass Strait, Victoria, Australia. What is it with the Bible?

  19. Nice article and I watched the whole video.
    What struck me was I noticed no looting,
    no copper thieves,
    no police barricades,
    people waving to each other in acceptance.

    1962, definitely a gentler time.
    Thanks for the memory.

  20. Thank you for this post. I was just on LBI this past summer. My mom grew up in Shark River Hills, which is not far from there. Most of her summers growing up in the 1950s were spent on LBI. Til this very day she talks about the time when the ocean met the bay whenever someone mentions Long Beach Island. However that was an earlier time and I believe it was a hurricane which created that particular memory for her. I grew up in the Atlantic City area and my high school environmental science teacher often referred to those barrier islands as “temporary outer sand bars.” Always sounded pretty appropriate to me.

    [Reply: I think the 1944 hurricane caused one breach in LBI, but haven't stumbled across a reference. -Ric]

  21. The nor’easters definitely beat up the shore more so than the hurricanes or tropical storms. Ocean City had a freshly replenished beach eroded over the past year and a half. It has developed a pretty good drop off just as you approach the water.

    I highly recommend a picnic lunch in the shadow of the Barnegat Lighthouse to anyone who happens to be in the area. It’s a state park, so you have to pack out what you pack in. Buy from one of the local eateries and maybe you can avoid being tagged a “shoobie.”

    [Reply: Check out my post script above. I just added a 1940s era photo of Old Barney.

    BTW, those images started out as old negatives I had pulled out in the 1960s to print at my high school's darkroom. I left them in the envelope, instead of the boxes the rest of Dad's 2.5" x 3.5" negatives are in. I couldn't find prints, so I used a recessed LED ceiling flood lamp as a light table (Cree lamp and has a flat fine grain diffuser), took photos of the negatives, and processed them with "xv" (a image manipulation program written for Unix some 20 years ago) to convert them to positives and scale them for this post.]

  22. I grew up in North Jersey, Paramus, and we went to the outer banks in the summer and again in September for an end of the season. One September we kids didn’t know that there was a hurricane because they didn’t have weather radios back then. Well my parent didn’t tell us there was a storm, we just thought it was hard rain. They spent the whole night up woryyring. When I and my sibblings woke up the next day there were people in row boats in the street and we had to stay there because the bridge was under water. To use kids it was great fun, but to our parents it was a night they didn,t want to repeat.

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