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Really Lousy Weather

by Greg Hoffman


Coastal winter storms, or northeasters as they are called, because of the direction from which the wind comes, represent a far more common threat to the Jersey shore than that posed by hurricanes. In New England these storms are called nor'easters inland they're often called blizzards but call them what you want, these storms can be deadly.

Residents in N.J. can expect, on average, 3 fairly significant Northeasters each year, usually between the months of October and April. Usually they threaten our pocketbooks more than anything else. Beach erosion and moderate flood damage in the form of flooded basements, cars and carpets is the usual result here on Long Beach Island. Moderate wind damage in the form of downed utility wires, tree limbs and jettisoned roof shingles can also be expected.

Photo of Harvey Cedars flooded after the 1962 Northeaster.
Click to see a larger image.
Occasionally, which is to say every few years or so, we get a fairly major northeaster. These storms will cause the same type of damage but on a larger scale. In addition, whole trees, utility poles and the occasional roof will succumb to the harsh winds generated by such a storm. Ocean waves will crash over seawalls and through sand dunes at various points along the coast adding to the overall mess. Store owners can expect to lose merchandise displayed on the bottom shelves of stores situated on low lying thoroughfares. Moderate to serious damage to some boardwalks, fishing piers, and many marinas can also be expected.

Finally, there are the really big block busters, the mega storms. Mercifully, Northeasters of this magnitude have visited the Jersey shore only twice in the last 35 years. These storms will wreak havoc on coastal areas lashing at oceanfront homes with waves in excess of 20 feet while submerging whole communities under deep, cold water as hurricane force winds knock down all but the most well constructed structures.

The worst aspect of one of these storms is not its intensity but its duration. Three days is about normal, three days of towering waves eating away first the beaches and than the ground from under the homes behind them, three days of sustained winds in excess of 70 MPH with gusts approaching 100 MPH, three days of deep tidal flooding and for those fortunate enough to reside in homes that haven't washed away, three or more days of no heat, electricity, or running water.

During the early part of the 20th Century a number of northeasters forced map makers to redraw their maps of New Jersey. One storm in the winter of 1916 washed away not only every building standing on the southern most 10 blocks of the Absecon Island community of Longport, but the very ground on which they stood.

This entire mess washed south across Great Egg Harbor Inlet and up onto the northern end of Ocean City. The result was a sizable new land mass on the north end of Ocean City upon which the present day community of Ocean City Gardens now stands. What in effect occurred was that the Great Egg Harbor Inlet which separates Absecon Island from Ocean City moved to a new location further north. Historically this is not a particularly unusual event, without exception every inlet along the New Jersey coast has been formed, moved, closed up or reopened by northeasters during the past 200 years.

From February 4th thru February 6th of 1920 a huge and powerful northeast storm dumped 17 inches of what the weather forecasters now cheerfully call a winter mix on the state of New Jersey. The newspapers were quick to dub this event "The Great Snow and Sleet Storm of 1920".

For four straight days, this northeaster wreaked havoc on Long Beach Island where storm driven seas punched open a large new inlet between Holgate and Tuckers Beach. Meanwhile, on the northern end of this, now only, 18 mile long island, whole streets and numerous homes vanished as the Barnegat Inlet continued its centuries old southern migration with a sudden lurch. It was this storm that destroyed Barnegat Light's famed Oceanic Hotel and necessitated the demolition of the equally famous Light Keepers House.

The new inlet below Holgate was eventually given the name of Beach Haven Inlet and to this day it remains Long Beach Island's southern inlet.

Photo showing Beach Haven at 5th Street after the 1962 storm.
Click to see a larger image.
The grand daddy of all northeasters, the winter storm against which all others are measured, struck on March 6th, 7th, and the 8th of 1962. So severe was this northeaster that the Weather Bureau took the unprecedented step of giving it an official name. The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962 totally devastated the Jersey shore, destroying over 4,000 buildings and causing $130 million (in 1962 dollars) worth of damage.

Up and down the N.J. coastline whole streets vanished and virtually every boardwalk was destroyed. On Long Beach Island alone 5 new ocean to bay inlets opened up, breaking the island into many smaller pieces. Thirty to forty foot seas washed a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Monssen, up onto the beach in Holgate.

Before the storm ended seven Long Beach Island residents would lose their lives including the Police Chief of Long Beach Township. Officially 40 people perished along the eastern seaboard during that storm, but that is only an estimate, the true number will never be known.

One fatality that is not included in that official estimate was that of a disabled Wildwood man who, confined to his bed watched the flood waters slowly rise up the walls of his bedroom. When, finally, the cold murky water reached the top of his mattress, he ended his life with a gun he kept on his bed side table.

Those who succumbed to heart attacks were usually left off the official death toll as well. Not every heart attack suffered by coastal residents in March of 1962 was necessarily induced by direct contact with the weather. In those days the Federal government didn't subsidize flood insurance and for that reason virtually no one along the coast had any. In the words of one Long Beach Island Mayor, "If you lost your house, you lost your house."

As if to add insult to injury the storm was in March and most oceanfront communities began their fiscal years on January 1st, this meant that even if your house was totally destroyed by the storm, you still owed the tax man another 10 months of property taxes. The bank that held mortgages on these non existing properties were, of course, equally unyielding.

Aerial view of high tide after the 1962 storm.
Click to see a larger image.
Probably the most frightening thing about the March 1962 storm is that given the right mix of meteorological and astronomical events any of the usual 3 northeasters, that come this way each winter, could turn into a monster of equal proportions. Thankfully, the chances of this happening during any particular winter are exceedingly slim. In fact, the experts agree that it is highly unlikely that another storm exactly like that of the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962 will occur within the next 100 years. But as anyone who has ever tossed the dice in Atlantic City will tell you, one can never gauge the next roll of the dice based on the outcome of the previous one.

On December 11, 1992 a huge northeaster, sporting winds up to 90 MPH, pounded the Jersey shore ripping up boardwalks and flooding streets from Longport to Sea Bright. Had that storm maintained the intensity of its first day through its 2nd and 3rd day, as the 1962 storm did, it would have been an equally devastating event. The next 1962 storm might occur in 2062, and then again it might occur this winter.

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Copyright © 1997 by Greg Hoffman

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