The storm was of major concern to our family since not only did we live in a coastal city, but we also owned an oceanfront cottage at Nags Head, North Carolina on the beautiful Outer Banks. If Hampton Roads was going to take a major hit from this extremely slow moving nor'easter, the folks to our south were bound to be devastated as well, probably even more severely given their geographical placement jutting out in the Atlantic. I remember Mom talking to her sister at the beach before their power was lost and both were concerned, but Aunt Sylvia was experienced in dealing with serious storms as a beach resident. Hanging up from her call, Mom said we would have to wait to worry about the cottage and focus on things right here and right now. After all, we only lived two blocks from the Hampton Roads with a tidal creek across the vacant lot to the opposide side next door. I had never seen it flood our property but this storm was unpredictable.
At the time I was fifteen years old, a student at Newport News High School in my hometown by the same name and the experience of witnessing a nor'easter which hit with such fury that could made many hurricanes seem tame was a daunting one. And while the high tides on that first day grew higher each cycle, they were nothing compared to the two following days. Strong winds from the ocean were relentless, driving huge volumes of water into the harbor between capes Henry and Charles and directly into the Chesapeake Bay and the Roads. The wind blew so hard that a changing of the tides was miniscule, with the next tide rising even higher. And most ships stayed well out to sea to ride it out, fearful of the damage caused by the vessel's hull crashing into the dock uncontrollably, that being more dangerous than the storm to the ships. Several people on a tug running upriver on the James River drowned when the vessel turned over and shipbuilding and coal terminal business ground to a halt.
The tidal creek mentioned previously was Salter's Creek, normally just a small sliver of water in this area but one which during the storm turned into a lake filling the ten acre lot next door. And since the tides were so high, it receded from its crest between tidal cycles only a small amount due to the inability to empty from the tide and heavy rain. As both the wind and rain continued for nearly three days, trees started to weaken in the wet soil and fall. Two trees toppled in our back yard but luckily not onto the house.
The Hampton Road overflowed above the seven foot sea wall and water swept into yards across Chesapeake Avenue, making the Boulevard impassable as well as about half a block inland on most avenues intersecting it. And for the first time that I ever remembered (excepting a burst hot water heater that flooded the basement), the abundance of water seeped into our basement to a depth of about two feet, barely missing the shut off for our furnace. Clean up was a big mess.
We were fortunate compared to our neighbors in adjoining Hampton. The Wythe neighborhood flooded and many had to be rescued by boat. And at Buckroe Beach, facing the Chesapeake Bay, homes and businesses were destroyed and the streets were made unusable. And this went on for five tidal cycles with heavy squalls and wind.
But as bad as it was at home on Hampton Roads, the fury of the storm along the Outer Banks was catastrophic. Many cottages were destroyed and condemned, entire stretches of beach where homes had been were empty, and the water poured across the highway into the scrub growth land behind. We found out later when the power there was restored that our cottage had become a refuge for several families that were swamped and had nowhere to go. Uncle Hal had rescued them and somehow got them there safely, where they stayed until the lengthy tides subsided.
Nearly a month later, when emergency and temporary repairs to both the Wright Memorial Bridge and the beach road were completed and passable, we traveled to the beach on a Saturday to see for ourselves. It was slow going across the bridge and up the incline in Kitty Hawk to the point on the dunes where we could look down on the beach and sea. Crossing the rise, the view looked like a war zone. Cottages were facing in all directions, torn from their foundations and others crushed. Parts of the road consisted of graded dirt where the road had been washed out. Piles of debris were passed, awaiting removal, pwoer lines blocking the road had been removed but poles were everywhere and oceanfront lots that previously had nice cottages were empty. And even though we were previously told that our beloved CAROJA, the cottage named for we three children was safe, we were skeptical.
Finally, after the slow twelve mile drive to our cottage at the twelve mile post, we turned into the driveway of our oceanfront paradise. There she was, standing tall and without a shingle out of place. The only thing different was the mountain of sand in the parking turnaround and the cuts made in the dunes where the sea came in. Since the cottage was on a very high spot, the water had gone under the raised house and settled inland across the highway in the flatlands. But the unintended consequence was that salt water mosquitoes were breeding in huge numbers and after dark all had to stay indoors.
We walked down to the beach and didn't recognize it. Huge pieces of lumber and other debris were scattered about and the natural dune line was nearly non-existent, having been cut out by the water. The normally slanted beach was cut flat. Looking north we saw a huge section of the fishing pier missing and what looked like a large section of a cottage sitting in the breakers. We were indeed lucky.
On Hatteras Island to the south, the lower third of the island was left stranded as a new inlet cut through between the town of Salvo and Buxton. It was eventually filled in and the road rebuilt but for a significant period of time, all supplies for the residents had to be brought in by boat from Manteo or the mainland.
Services on the beach were still mostly unavailable and we limited our stay after seeing the cottage to seeing family and friends, including Sylvia and Hal. And while they both agreed it topped any storms in memory, they rode it out in their home which sat twelve feet above the sand. It survived where other failed because the builder was Uncle Hal himself, the man who built our cottage as well. He truly excelled at building for the beach, putting an extra nail in every storm shingle and far exceeding building standards of the day in planting the pilings for the stilts.
The storm also ravaged places farther north. Virginia Beach had its well know boardwalk undercut and looking like a pier parallel to the shoreline when things were done. Assateague and Chincoteague on the Virginia Eastern Shore were pummeled, as were beach towns such as Ocean City, Rehoboth, Atlantic City and points all the way to Cape Cod. And inland areas with the aforementioned blizzards where blinding snow fell in gale conditions.
Forty people were killed in six states, damage was in the hundreds of million of dollars, and coastal communities between the two capes, Cod and Hatteras, were all inundated. Recovery was long and slow but it was successful. And the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey ranks the storm as one of the ten worst storms in the United States in the twentieth century.
The press initially called it the Great Nor'easter of 1962, but writer and Outer Banks historian Aycock Brown pegged it as the Great Ash Wednesday Storm due to the date when it was underway and it caught on. I'll always remember it and I hope and pray that one like this never hits again. For while we just recently saw a major nor'easter hit, primarily to the north of the Outer Banks and Virginia, as bad as it was it can't cut a candle to the 1962 storm. And just think about this. If the Outer Banks had been developed like it is today back in 1962, the damage would have been in the billions.
The storm will also be one of the topics in the book I am currently working on about my days as a youth at Nags Head. Information will be made available on this site when it is ready for release.
Storms like this are always a possibility in places adjacent to the ocean and we never get much warning when they might strike. Today at least we have better meteorological capability to know with some warning, but even so there is very little man can do to defend himself from such onslaughts from nature. And it begs the question: Do we really know what we're doing when we put large numbers of people in such delicate environs? I don't have the answer to the question, but I truly hope we continue to use caution in what we do with the natural elements we have been blessed with.