March 5 marked the 55th anniversary of the Great Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962. Even today, the storm is considered one of the most devastating to hit the Delmarva Peninsula. The nor’easter, which coincided with a spring tide, remained stationary over the area for almost 36 hours, causing flooding that lasted more than five hours. Although the most devastation occurred along the beaches, especially Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach, even towns inland were affected.
According to the DVD “The ’62 Storm: Delaware’s Shared Response,” weather reports for the storm did not initially cause concern among locals. It was reported that a nor’easter would affect the region on March 5, but this was not unusual for March weather in Delaware. However, by midnight on March 5, it was clear that it was not an ordinary storm.
The storm was supposed to move up the coast and into New England. However, the low was blocked by an upper level high, causing it to stall over the peninsula. The stall caused the storm to expand, increasing wind speeds significantly. The registered winds were higher than those experienced during Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The storm was so significant by midnight, Governor Elbert Carvel declared a state of emergency, ordering evacuations of the beach area.
At that time, there were no gauges to tell how high ocean waves were, but eyewitnesses reported waves as high as 20 to 30 feet on March 7, 1962. The high waves along the coast pushed water into the bays and tributaries, causing flooding inland as well. Towns like Milford, Milton and Millsboro suffered significant flooding as rivers rose. Because the storm stalled for almost three days, the area dealt with five high tides during the storm and one of those tides is still the highest on record for the state.
Bowers and Slaughter Beach were affected by winds and high tides as well. Many of the homes built along the beaches were built using standards meant for homes built inland.
“Many people just laid joints along the marsh and built on top of them,” John Moyer Jr., who was interviewed on the DVD, said. “There was no foundation and no support. We had no warning at all about this storm. We had no idea how devastating it would be.” In fact, five of the seven fatalities in Delaware occurred in Bowers. According to Mr. Moyer, the Allen family lived on the point and, as the storm intensified, Mr. Allen attempted to evacuate his family. He placed his five children in the family car and went to convince his wife to leave. His wife was so frightened, she was reluctant to leave the home and, before she could be convinced, the car washed into the water, killing all five children.
Photos after the storm show downtown Milford streets that look more like a river. Humes Hardware and other businesses downtown suffered flooding. Near what is now Bicentennial Park, the flooding was significant, with water above the store windows. Homes in Slaughter Beach were destroyed, many falling forward onto the beach.
“I remember seeing large boats stuck in the woods between Milford and Slaughter Beach,” Claudia Leister, Executive Director of the Milford Museum said.“ In some areas, prisoners were used to remove debris while young boys earned extra money shoveling sand or removing debris from beach homes.
The storm changed the many of the building codes along the Delaware coastline, making them more stringent and restrictive in order to protect people and property. The National Weather Service says that there have been storms as strong as the 1962 storm, but none have stalled over the area for that length of time, lessening the damage.
Copies of the DVD “The ’62 Storm: Delaware’s Shared Response” are available for sale at the Milford Museum. The DVD uses interviews, personal photos, home movies and news footage to tell the story of the storm’s devastation and the recovery afterward.
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