Shockley, now 75 and a lawyer in Ocean City, figures his car was the last to make it through a road washout near 62nd Street after rescuing a man with heart difficulties. He had to tie the cruiser to a telephone pole with a steel cable to keep it from being washed away overnight.

"The town was very fortunate," Shockley said. "It could have been a lot worse."

Recovery, redevelopment and preservation

Despite the storm's destruction, recovery was swift.

Business owners returned to their shops to repair windows and shovel out sand and mud. Stories of unlikely recoveries became local folklore — such as one about letters delivered one day late from a mailbox that had floated 20 blocks in the storm and another about a jewelry store owner who found his cash register in the sand, bills still inside and bone-dry.

Bulldozers from across the state moved in to collect the mounds of sand, pieces of boardwalk and other debris scattered around town. A wreckage heap near City Hall burned for weeks, Powell recalled.

"It burned all spring, but we were ready in the summer," he said.

Families visited from across the state to see the damage. Insurance companies were wary of covering lots left unprotected by the beach erosion, and property values plummeted, said George Hurley, a lifelong Ocean City resident who has written two books with his wife on the city's history.

For many families, the damage was too much to bear, Hurley said. Rather than rebuild — or perhaps, even, with no choice — they took insurance payouts and left Ocean City.

That created opportunities for developers, who bought up the empty parcels or damaged homes in bunches. What were once adjoining cottages with shared porches became 10-, 20- or even 100-unit hotels and condominiums within a few years. By 1971, nearly 1,300 condo units were under construction in Ocean City, according to "City on the Sand," a book of the town's history by Mary Corddry, a former Baltimore Sun correspondent.

Ocean City was always more "business-oriented" than its Delaware neighbors, Fenwick Island and Rehoboth Beach, Hurley said, so it was primed for more development than those resort towns. But cheap land and an influx of investment in the years after the storm may have hastened Ocean City's build-up.

"People who owned property obviously loved their property, used it, and spent summers here," Hurley said. "They would have been less prone to give it up without making a lot of money on it as the years went on."

The opposite may have been true for Assateague Island, which was on its way to becoming "Ocean City South" before the storm hit.

In the 1940s, lawmakers and conservationists pitched the island to be part of a 75,000-acre Rehoboth-Assateague Seashore, but the proposal failed. The land instead drew the interest of developers planning the communities of Atlantic Ocean Estates and Ocean Beach.

Nearly 6,000 lots had been divided and sold on the island by the early 1960s, said Carl Zimmerman, a management assistant for the National Park Service at Assateague National Seashore. About 30 buildings stood on the island before the storm, including about 10 on the new lots, but the storm damaged or destroyed them, along with a newly paved road connecting the development.

Two months before the storm hit, a federal commission released a report urging the protection of more shoreline. And with the cost estimated at $19 million to make the land development-ready again, according to the Park Service, a push to preserve the island was renewed. After three years of legislative wrangling, the national seashore was created in 1965.

"With that storm, it really sort of turned the tide in favor of conservation rather than development," Zimmerman said. "We don't have an exhibit on it in the brochure, but it's something we're very aware of."

Nearly 400 people are expected to gather to remember the storm at an event the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum is hosting Wednesday night at the Ocean City Convention Center.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly contributed to this article.

Ash Wednesday Storm

Dates: March 6-8, 1962, from North Carolina to New England

Deaths: 40 nationwide

Damage: $200 million in total; 75 homes and businesses destroyed in Maryland

Conditions: 60 mph winds, 91/2-foot storm surge