Knowing what happened, it’s hard not to shake your head upon finding the weather forecast for Mon., March 5, 1962:
“Snow beginning this afternoon continuing tonight and accumulating 2-4 inches or more. High temperature this afternoon 34-40 and lows tonight 25-30. Tuesday cloudy early in the morning but partial clearing during the day with high 28-32. Outlook for Wednesday fair and cold.”
That Wednesday would go down in history as the height of the three-day “Ash Wednesday Storm.” No one had warning. It was supposed to be just another late-winter nor’easter, gone in a day.
But this nor’easter got stuck in the atmosphere and sat motionless over the Mid-Atlantic region for three long days of drenching rain. Winds hit 80 miles per hour. Ocean waves soared to 30 feet. High tides, one after another–that was the worst of it.
Bethany lost one-third of its beach-front homes. The Rehoboth waterfront was ravaged. More devastation in Fenwick, Dewey, all the way up to Bowers Beach. One newspaper report estimated that 6,000 people along the Delaware coast landed in emergency shelters.
Here are a few scenes from those horrible days, culled mostly from old newspaper articles.
‘There’s Nothing Left’
Rehoboth Beach City Manager Frank H. Buck:
“I haven’t slept since Monday night. Everything south of Rehoboth Avenue is practically gone, the boardwalk, the buildings, everything. Part of the Hotel Henlopen is lying in the ocean. The Stuart-Kingston galleries are gone. One wing of the new Atlantic Sands Motel, washed away. The old Belhaven Hotel is gone. There’s nothing left of the shops where the boardwalk used to be. How much damage? Millions, millions.”
“Hotels stood gaping, open to the sea. Beach homes were washed away. Pieces of piling and boardwalk and building washed inland to collect on Rehoboth Avenue in the center of town.”
And yet, strangely, shops and restaurants just half a block inland remained open, even if their customers were mostly National Guardsmen and police officers.
“Marie Gilbride, a former Wilmingtonian who lived in Rehoboth Beach, sat huddled [in the Robert Lee Restaurant] over a cup of coffee. “This was God’s country–until last night. It’ll be God’s country again after this storm has passed.”
‘You Just Move and Keep Moving’
“The front of the Helopen Hotel hung down toward the sea, the dining room exposed on the first floor, rubble strewn throughout the inner court. The rear of the building stood firm, white concrete against a dark sky. Huge chunks of concrete that had once been a pavilion were stacked in crazy-quilt patterns near the hotel.”
“Four boys in colorful windbreakers climbed the fence surrounding the Henlopen Hotel remains. [National Guard] Capt. Charles Rider chased them away. ‘We’ve got five boys cooling their heels in the lockup now,’ he said. ‘Our [National Guard] boys are going to be tough on looters.'”
Ashley Jenkins, manager of the Henlopen Hotel:
“No time to waste. We’re going to be open in May.”
“How and where do you begin,” Jenkins was asked.
“You begin by getting the sand out,” he said. “Then you rip out the unsafe walls. And while you do that you plan new walls. You just move and keep moving.”
‘That’s When My Father Ordered Us Out’
The Knox Chicken Farm was located back then near where the Sea Colony vacation rental complex is today. From the book “Bethany Beach Memoirs”:
“Shortly before the big storm hit … the Knox Chicken Farm had taken delivery of 15,000 chickens. … Arlene Knox Layton remembers the storm arriving with sudden fury, without much warning.”
“You could hear the water coming from Bethany, down Route One and Pennsylvania Avenue. It was awesome. It didn’t come straight over from the ocean because of the dunes, but it sure came down from Bethany. It was over the hood of our car. That’s when my father ordered us out.”
She and her mother sheltered at an inland school for a while, then landed with relatives. Her father and brother stayed on the farm, but they weren’t able to save the chickens.
‘The Flood Rose to the Heads of Parking Meters’
“Large sections of Milford were under water as the Mispillion River flooded the downtown section. The Fire Company building was flooded and firemen kept their trucks on Front Street waiting possible alarms. … The flood rose to the heads of parking meters along the lower sections of Front Street. It was called the worst flood in Milford since 1935.”
More Chicken Catastrophe
“Almost a million chickens were drowned during the storm in Sussex County alone.”
“The exact number has not yet been tallied but State Sen. Curtis W. Steen lost 26,000 in one project in Dagsboro, about one mile from the Indian River. When employees of his firm went to investigate as the water receded yesterday they found six chickens still alive on a rafter.”
Edwin Murray of Murray’s Feed Service in Frankford, Del.:
“It was something you couldn’t fight. One minute a grower would call us in delight and say that the water wasn’t even near the chicken house, and in what seemed the next minute he would call and say the house was filled with three feet of water and all the chickens were drowned.”
The Lilies Floating Away
Headline: “Easter Seal Lilies Float Off in Storm”
From the story:
“They were only paper lilies, but they represented hours of painstaking labor by handicapped people of the state.
“Between 3,000 and 4,000 of these lilies are one of the lesser but still lamented losses of this week’s storm. The lilies, symbols of the Delaware Society for Crippled Children and Adults’ Easter Seal campaign, were stored at the agency’s Delmarva Rehabilitation Center at Georgetown. High winds Monday night and Tuesday blew parts of the flat roof from the cinder block building.
“Fortunately there were no human casualties. Wilmer f. Loomis, therapist-director, said there were three patients in the treatment room when a second section of the roof went Tuesday afternoon.
“‘Just wet backs and heads,’ he reported.”
–posted by Jim Duffy in February 2024 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC.
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