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.
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