Extensive flooding

The storm is considered worse than the hurricane that hit the seaside town in 1933. Strong winds and an especially high tide caused flooding in Ocean City and along the coast. (Baltimore Sun photo by Clarence B. Garrett)

On a snowy night 50 years ago, University of Maryland senior Janet Holland tuned in to the CBS Evening News not expecting to hear a report on her hometown of Ocean City.

"Walter Cronkite basically indicated the city was washing away," she recalled.

A powerful nor'easter sweeping up the East Coast slammed North Carolina's Outer Banks and Virginia Beach before taking Ocean City by surprise. Without today's 24-7 cable news frenzy and high-tech storm forecasting, no one thought much of it when blustery winds arrived on Tuesday, March 6, 1962. But the storm's surge and high tides quickly escalated, overwhelming what was then a town of about 1,500 over the next three days.

What became known as the Ash Wednesday Storm changed the course of Maryland's shoreline, derailed the planned development of Assateague Island and cleared the way for the first of Ocean City's now ubiquitous high-rises.

Holland, now Janet Cherrix but still an Ocean City resident, phoned home as soon as possible.

"I could tell my mother was in awe of what she was seeing," she said. "'Baltimore Avenue is like a river and pieces of boardwalk are floating by,'" she recalled hearing from her mother, MaryBelle Holland. "I'm looking at a piece of boardwalk that still has a lamppost attached to it."

Considered one of the 20th century's most devastating storms, it caused $200 million in damage — about $1.5 billion in today's dollars — and killed 40 people from North Carolina to New York.

"This is the worst disaster in the history of Maryland in my time," then-Gov. J. Millard Tawes said after skipping the last day of the General Assembly session to survey the damage by helicopter. "I've never seen anything like it. It was a horrible sight."

A storm like no other

For year-round residents of Ocean City, winter storms weren't daunting. The town faced the chance of hurricanes each fall, but a nor'easter threatened more the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

But this storm was unlike others. Strong northeast winds and a new moon built up days of high tides in the bays west of the barrier islands. By the time the storm peaked Wednesday morning, high tide was nearly 91/2 feet above normal low tide levels. That was two feet higher than the other landmark disaster to hit Ocean City, a 1933 storm that knocked an inlet through the island.

The Ash Wednesday Storm's high waters covered the narrow island with as much as four feet of floodwaters. Storm waves crashed through buildings north of Ocean City proper to form a temporary inlet at 71st Street.

There are no precise records of water levels, as the National Weather Service did not have gauges in Ocean City at that time, said Bill Sammler, a weather service forecaster in Wakefield, Va. But the storm posted the highest tide on record at 91/4 feet above average low tide for Lewes, Del., he said, showing it rivals even the most devastating hurricanes to hit the region.

The storm demolished 75 homes and businesses in Ocean City. The high, fast-moving waters washed away sand 250 feet wide and as much as eight feet deep along the beach, sending cottages and the lots they stood on into the ocean.

"This was worse than any hurricane," said Marlene Mumford, Cherrix's sister, who was 16 at the time of the storm. Families were trapped in their homes, sequestered to upper floors or attics. Mumford and her parents could do nothing but watch as debris floated past their home on Baltimore Avenue, luckily spared from flood damage by the home's design and a decorative wall of concrete around the yard.

In Baltimore, the storm dropped about four inches of snow and nearly two feet fell in Western Maryland.

The rescue effort was intense. Roland E. "Fish" Powell, who served as Ocean City's mayor from 1985 to 1996, was a firefighter at the time and said even first responders were caught off guard by the storm.

"The calls were coming in from everywhere, distant places," he said. "We thought, 'What in the world is happening?' "

Ray Shockley spent days on duty as a Maryland State Police trooper, helping residents trapped in Ocean City during the storm, freeing others from their flooded homes around West Ocean City and guarding others from looting.