By Emil R Salvini
This month marks the 50th anniversary of an event that changed the 127-mile New Jersey coast forever. The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962, or the ‘Ash Wednesday Storm’ as it became known, was not a hurricane but a fierce nor’easter that before it bid the Garden State farewell had chewed up the state’s most precious resource.
The weather report for Monday, March 5th, 1962 predicted nothing out of the ordinary for a late winter day: “Monday: chance of rain, cloudy. Tuesday: cool and cloudy.” There were no advance warnings, no radio bulletins, and no evacuation plans; no one knew what King Neptune had in mind for the next few days.
The storm was unique in that it did not mount a full-fledged attack for which hurricanes were known but instead it quietly mugged the coast, arriving unannounced and stealing centuries of history. Even the sun, the moon and the earth took part in the meteorological conspiracy. There was a new moon, a time of traditionally high tides, when the sun and moon are in alignment. Perigee tides, higher than normal tides, that occur every six or seven months when the moon is at the closest point to the earth in its orbit, joined the celestial gang.
Known as a nor’easter, the storm was the evil child of two weather systems; one a powerful snowmaker born in the Midwest traveling east to unite with its mate, a southern fire-eater forming off the coast of Georgia. The two systems joined as a powerful monster and headed north to create havoc.
The storm would have cut its visit to the Jersey coast short had it not been for another bad actor, an arctic cold front barreling down from Canada that stopped the nor’easter in its tracks.
The nor’easter stalled long enough to gather strength and then began battering the southern New Jersey coast with between Force 10 and 11 winds, a mixture of snow, sleet and hail, and twenty-five to thirty-five foot waves. This was no hit and run affair. The storm of the century, assisted by its accomplices, slowly and viciously pounded the Jersey coast for three days and nights. Each flood tide (seven in all) signaled another round of destruction, accompanied by 55-knot winds. As it left Cape May and headed north, thirteen blocks of Cape May City’s fifteen-block boardwalk were demolished. Beach Drive, from end to end, was broken into a pile of black debris. Convention Hall was damaged beyond repair and much of the city flooded with two feet of water.
The damage was similar all the way up the New Jersey coast. An initial damage estimate to private and public assets was more that $100 million- and that was in 1960 dollars. Twenty-one people lost their lives, and more than two thousand buildings were demolished.
At Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, a Navy destroyer, the USS Monssen, was actually beached. The Loveland Town Bridge that spanned the Bay Head-Manasquan canal at Point Pleasant had collapsed. Residents that had experienced the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 agreed that the hurricane had been surpassed by the 1962 storm of the century.
Precise data on the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962 does not exist because, just as a thief covers his tracks at the scene of the crime, this storm had the audacity to destroy the weather recording equipment on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, along with the tank that belonged to the famed high-diving horse act. Longport lost almost 3,000 feet of its boardwalk and most of its fishing pier as the entire resort was submerged. Nearby Ventor also lost its historic walkway. The storm gobbled up piers along the coast. Most of the famous Atlantic City hotels were flooded. Ocean City’s beachfront was in ruins, and homes burned as submerged streets prevented firefighters from reaching the doomed summer dwellings.
The list of damage seemed endless. The Sea Isle City boardwalk was crushed, and almost 300 homes were lost to the successive tides. The north shore was not spared as more than 1,000 feet of Long Branch’s famous walkway was washed out to see. Asbury Park’s Convention Hall was damaged but survived although the wooden boardwalk was converted to airborne missiles smashing everything in their path. Seaside Heights lost a major section of its famed boardwalk.
In all, the storm had redrawn the New Jersey coastline forever. In Ocean County, the Atlantic Ocean cut through Long Beach Island to create three new channels to Barnegat Bay. In fact, Long Beach Island, from Barnegat Light to Beach Haven Inlet, was underwater for several days after the storm’s 25-foot waves joined the Atlantic Ocean with Barnegat Bay. Eighty percent of Long Beach Island’s structures were damaged or destroyed. Yes, that’s eighty percent. The storm’s tidal flooding and monstrous waves moved more sand than an army of bulldozers.
After the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962, several towns gave up on the idea of rebuilding fragile wooden boardwalk along the unpredictable Atlantic. Cape May and Sea Isle City rebuilt their boardwalks as “promenades” or macadam seawalls, to form a barrier against the next inevitable storm of the century. Jersey towns had begun to learn that, in the battle with King Neptune, building too close to his laird can come with a steep price.
Author and historian Emil R. Salvini is the host of Tales of the Jersey Shore.