Photo credits: The Delaware Public Archives
100 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, the 27-man crew of the Liberian Tanker, Gem, was in the fight of their lives. All around them, the ocean hammered at the 500 foot ship and her cargo of molasses, sending wave after wave and pounding her mercilessly. The tanker took her beating as the day waged on while her crew clung on helplessly for the ride amidst the 25 foot waves. Then suddenly as night began to set in, Mother Nature would unleash her full wrath on the Gem. With an indescribable might, she would raise the 9,260 ton vessel slamming it into the sea and shearing it in two.
The captain and seven of his crew looked on in shock as the aft section of the ship spun away with the remaining 20 crew members. The sea all around them had become like liquid, moving mountains. Once more the coastal area off Hatteras would live up to its reputation as the birthplace of extratropical cyclones and the graveyard of ships. The captain ordered his men into action and they began feverishly rig a makeshift antennae. They spent what they assumed were the last hours of their lives, hand cranking an SOS on their emergency transmitter and popping off flares.
In the end, all but one crew member would be rescued; the second mate was crushed against the ship as he tried to make ready a lifeboat. Huddling aboard the Naval Destroyer Stribling, they were now safe. They were victims of a storm that had come with no name and no warning. Yet in its wake, it would leave behind one of the most devastating and high tolling destruction in the history of its time.
Mere days before, on Sunday, March 4th, 1962, the storm appeared as nothing more than wave blip on the radar in the polar front of the Atlantic coast of Florida. A day later, it would send thousands of coastal residence and visitors scurrying inland as it dropped extraordinary amounts of rain along the East Coast. But still, despite the heavy rains and angry winds, this was dismissed as a coastal storm. It was on a path to head back to sea by Tuesday and dissipate along the way. Instead, a dramatic change of meteorological events would come into play, looping it back towards the coast where is would linger.
The combination of two pressure events collapsed on each other during the spring equinox, which caused the storm to become stalled. A high pressure system coming down from northern Canada began to fuel the storm, feeding it an incredible amount of moisture and wind flow. The high tides were turned into tidal surges, combining the normal rise of the waters with the deluges of the storm. But the consistent barrage of rain and precipitation refused to let up, thereby not allowing low tides to subside the overfilled areas. This pattern was disrupted for the next three days and the storm would sit over a total of five high tides. In New Jersey, it would punish the boardwalk area, eventually breaking the concrete and sections of the sea wall. Meanwhile, the coastal hotels, homes and resort areas of North Carolina’s Outer Banks were decimated. Perhaps the worst to feel the fury was the Town of Chincoteague in Virginia which was submerged in more than 6 feet of water in some areas.
Just south of Bethany, in Ocean City, 25 foot waves and 60 mph winds would eventually break the barriers, and the ocean assaulted inland. It would march its way along the sand dunes of Rehoboth where it literally flattened them with record 40 foot waves. Crushing through their defenses, it invaded the region and destroyed the entire boardwalk along with beach front homes.
The explosion of the storm was felt as far away as Alabama where snow fell in its aftermath. Winchester, Virginia was crippled by two feet, but outdone by the Blue Ridge Mountains that was buried in over three feet. Florida would see temperatures fall below zero. North Carolina fell to blizzard conditions and sections of Long Beach Island had been severed completely through.
Before it was over, the storm would claim the lives of 40 people and injure over 1,000 more. It would literally redefine the coastline in some areas and caused property damage across six states to the tune of several hundred million dollars. The US Weather Bureau felt its impact was so powerful; it dubbed the storm, “The Great Atlantic Storm”. It was later referred to as the “Five High Storm” in reference to the five high tides it presided over.
To this day, it is probably best known by the moniker bestowed upon it by once local resident, Aycock Brown. The majority of the damage caused by the storm took place on Wednesday, March 7th. This day coincided with the Christian holiday of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent that year. Brown called the storm the “Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962” which became accepted by popular culture.
The Delaware Public Archives has a Facebook page dedicated to the event. You can visit it here and see additional photos taken in the aftermath of the storm.