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“Delaware’s multi-million dollar playground in Sussex County just isn’t there anymore.”

That’s how newspaper reporter William Frank summarized the scenes he saw while taking a ride in an Army helicopter to get a “seagull’s eye view of the devastation” caused by the hellacious Ash Wednesday storm of March 1962.

The Ash Wednesday storm arrived on March 6, 1962. If it were a normal nor’easter it would have been done and gone within 24 hours. But this nor’easter got stuck in the atmosphere and sat over the Mid-Atlantic region for three long days.

Huge waves, winds gusting to 60 miles per hour, and worst of all, the tides. Each new high tide over those three days extended the flood damage of the previous one. The U.S. Geological Survey:

“The Ash Wednesday Storm … was probably the largest East Coast winter storm [in history] in terms of land loss and number of homes damaged or destroyed.”

The storm had big impacts inland and farther north, too–there, it was a hellacious snowstorm. Forty people died in the larger East Coast area.

Back to William Frank and his seagull’s eye view of the damage: Here are some highlights–or should I say lowlights–from his story, published in the Wilmington Morning News on March 9, 1962.

“There is no boardwalk along the ocean front.”

“There are no dunes: all have been flattened and swept out into the ocean or into the Rehoboth and Indian River Bays.”

“As of yesterday there were practically no roads visible from Rehoboth to Fenwick.”

“More than three-fourths of the homes are either flattened into heaps of rubble, blown off their foundations or so badly damaged they will have to come down.”

Bethany Beach Ash Wednesday Storm 1962 from Delaware Public Archives

Aerial View of Bethany Beach (Del. Public Archives)

“From the air you can’t see Route 14 [as Route 1 was called back then] except for very brief stretches. The only way you can tell where the road lies under water is by the line of utility poles and an occasional “Stop” signs … sticking up above the flood.”

“For great stretches the ocean has joined the Indian River Bay and Rehoboth Bay.”

“There are many tragic sights–furniture strewn over the sand, walls of homes lying some distance from their foundations, gates to what were once homes sticking up above the sand but nothing else [nearby] in the way of habitation.”

“… And yet, strangely enough, where you see a dozen houses destroyed you will see an occasional house that somehow managed to escape the fury of the ocean and the wind.”

“From the helicopter we could see a few people walking around the damaged buildings in an area below Rehoboth Beach. They seemed to be in a daze, trudging through the wet sand and just looking at the terrible sight before them.”

“We flew low enough to see window curtains flapping dismally from windows of walls that were detached from roofs.”

Fenwick Island Ash Wednesday Storm 1962 Delaware Public Archives

Aerial view of Fenwick Island (Del. Public Archives)

“… The resort towns were the saddest places–particularly Fenwick and Bethany Beach. The water was still swirling around what houses were left–and we could see, in some places, water with a strong current roaring down areas that had once been streets. The National Guard camp at Bethany Beach was under water. The buildings looked like children’s building blocks left in puddles of dirty water.”

“… [In Rehoboth Beach,] all that is left where the boardwalk used to be are the pilings, gaunt and ugly. The capricious sea was still piling debris up against the remaining buildings. At one point we saw so many planks and logs jammed up against the remaining wall of a building [that] the scene looked like a logging camp.”

“Down along the water’s edge in the Indian River Inlet’s area we could see the stumps of an ancient pine forest that once flourished in that district. That forest was there many years ago but had been covered with sand. The tide and waves have washed away the sand to the extent that the blackened stumps are sticking up like the remains of piers.”

“… The only landmarks that seemed to have survived are the old watch towers along the ocean front, south of Rehoboth Beach, but even they seemed unusually squat because of the sand piled up around their houses.”

Sands Motel No Swimming from AP Newspaper Photo

Sands Motel Scene (Associated Press)

“Those of us who made the helicopter trip had little to say to one another. Each of us was riveted to a window–but when we landed at the Rehoboth Beach airport, the comments [made were all] the same: “Unbelievable!”

–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC in February 2024.

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