Remembering the Storm of '62
A 3-part Series By Mellany Armstrong March 6-8, 2012
Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3

Part 1

50 years ago today, a nor'easter ravaged Delaware's coast over three days, the most destructive storm in state history.

WDEL takes a look back. Here's part one of our three part series.

Click here to listen

"And I saw this wall of water."
"The building was kind of still intact, but all the water washing up and chairs and stuff floating underneath it."
"The devastation, you couldn't believe."

84-year-old Hazel Brittingham of Lewes remembers the morning of March 6, 1962, didn't look particularly ominous.

"It wasn't a kind of a morning that you wondered, 'Well, is school going to be called off or any such thing. We went to school," Brittingham said.

But Brittingham, a school secretary in Lewes, says they got word a storm was hitting Rehoboth, so she drove there with the superintendent to check things out.

"We were two streets back on Rehoboth Avenue, two streets from the boardwalk, and I looked up and I saw this wall of water, and that was the wall of water that was taking away the boardwalk and all the buildings along the boardwalk. And I didn't intend to scream, but I screamed," she said.

Winds of more than 60 miles an hour blew as water surged through beach communities. Wendy Carey is with the University of Delaware Sea Grant College.

"Consistently high storm surge, the regular astronomical tide, and the huge waves. The fact that it was three days and five high tide cycles resulted in the dramatic and devastating damage along the coast."

Sam Cooper is mayor of Rehoboth Beach and was only 9 years old when the storm hit. He recalls walking around to see the damage with his parents and aunt and uncle.

"And went to Maryland Avenue and the Atlantic Sands Hotel, the whole one side of it had fallen in and carpets were flapping."

Lonnie Field was 13 and watched as the water came up to his house in Bowers Beach.

"The tide was still coming in and I remember it coming in so fast, it actually was coming up the driveway in a stream and coming over our lawn, which, there was a rise in the lawn, so it backed up behind the lawn, and then we actually saw it breach the lawn like a dam."

Field wrote a song about the storm.....

Seven people in Delaware died in the storm, including most of a family.

"A lot of our neighbors weren't so lucky, and of course, there was the death of the six children. They were actually washed up behind our house, that's where they found them."

The storm sat over the coast for three days.

Part 2

What was known as the 'Ash Wednesday Storm' or the ' 100 year storm' blew over Delaware's coast 50 years ago this week, causing the most destruction the state has ever seen.

WDEL is taking a look back. Here's part two of our series.

Click here to listen

Bill Reynolds of Lewes was working at the local fish factory in March 1962.

"A friend of ours, he was one of the fire policeman. He said, 'Bill, it looks like we're in for a long night.' He said, 'That tide is really raising.'"

"And we could see how the waves were getting bigger and getting closer to the shore, so, sure enough, they dismissed us at about 3 o'clock so we could get off the beach because the storm was coming."

Reynolds was a 26-year-old firefighter with the Lewes Fire Department.

"I had no sooner got home and they set the whistle off. We started. Oh, gosh, it was.... I put in two days, I think two or three days. I was so tired."

The 76-year-old Reynolds recalls using fire trucks and military trucks known as deuce-and-a-halfs to rescue people, some of whom waited until the last second to ask for help.

"We made rounds, and some of them, we said, 'Look, this is our last call. If you don't take the ride now, don't know whether we'll be able to get back to you or not.' They said, 'We're gonna go.'"

Bill and many other fire department members saved about 70 families during that long night. The fire house and a school were used to house people whose homes were flooded.

"The houses were just demolished, and stuff floating everywhere. Stuff was where it wasn't supposed to be."

62-year-old Wayne Magee was 12 at the time, and says his father launched the family pontoon boat on a street in Fenwick Island to help neighbors who wanted to see their homes after the surge.

"He told his friend, and another friend told another one, 'Hey, we found a way to get in and check our property, so everybody loaded up on Dad's pontoon boat, and then we went riding down the streets, across the bay into Ocean City, down the roads. It's just hard to believe the devastation."

Magee says they were chased back more than once by the National Guard, which was called in to try to prevent looting.

After the water receded, sand was feet deep everywhere. Melvin Rust of Dagsboro, now 80 years old, had a small bulldozer back then.

"All you seen was a path plowed open of sand so you could get through with a vehicle, pert near like if you had about two or three foot of snow out here, so you plowed it open just so you could get through."

A lot of the work was in moving sand back under vacation homes for out-of-towners.

"All you got to do is go down there and get started pushing on one or two, and if some of them people down there, or if they knew somebody, there was no way of getting out of there just on one job or two jobs, they had me hopping all over the place."

Part 3

It was 50 years ago this week that a nor'easter caused dramatic destruction and death on the Delaware coast.

In part three of our series "Remembering the Storm of '62," a look at whether, and when, a storm like this could happen again.

Click here to listen

The storm of 1962 was not only the most deadly coastal storm in Delaware's recorded history, it was also the most costly.

"It is the coastal storm of record in Delaware, and I think it's a very important part of our history."

Wendy Carey, the coastal hazards specialist with the University of Delaware Sea Grant College, says the estimated damage from the storm was at least $70 million, or as much as half a billion in today's dollars.

35-knot winds blew across a thousand miles of ocean water, generating waves up to 40 feet tall, but inland areas were affected as well, because the storm brought sleet and snow.

"There were power outages, and, for example, approximately one to one-and-a-half million broiler chickens were lost because of the cold temperatures in the chicken houses. Additionally, there were impacts to the oyster industry, the clam industry."

Fifty 50 years later, Rehoboth Beach, as well as Lewes, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island, are all thriving vacation destinations. But the forces of nature could conspire again to bring another storm like the one in '62.

"We in the business know that there is another storm out there that's bigger than this one. It's a question of when that will happen."

Tony Pratt, administrator of the shoreline and waterway management section for DNREC, says regulatory standards for coastal building were put in place following the storm, but there is constant preparation for storms.

"That's why we spend a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of money on rebuilding the beaches. We nourish the beaches, we rebuild the dunes, and our coast of Delaware today physically is in far better shape than it was before the '62 storm because of the amount of work we've done to pump sand onto the beaches and create better dunes than we've had in the past."

Some think too much building is being allowed too close to the shoreline. Wayne Magee of Lewes thinks we're overdue for another big storm, and people are complacent.

"I got a place on the water down south, and I don't put anything there that I can't afford to lose. If you want to put up a million dollar home, don't complain about it. You're a grown person. Take your lickings if it comes. You sure ain't gonna stop it."

"It might happen two weeks from now, it may happen 27 years from now, it could happen 150 years from now. It will happen. This storm will be exceeded at some point. We don't know when that is."

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