Fifty-five years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) responded to a storm in Ocean City, Maryland, and elsewhere throughout the mid-Atlantic region — a storm like none the area had ever seen.
Ultimately remembered as the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, it was described in a Corps report as “the most unexpected storm, most complex in structure, most unusual in behavior and most devastating to the beaches, dunes and barrier islands.”
This storm changed the Corps’ relationship with the coast in ways still directly felt today.
The Corps report that also highlights emergency response efforts, titled “Report on Operation Five-High, March 1962 Storm,” was issued in August 1963, by the North Atlantic Division.
The Ash Wednesday Storm pummeled coastal areas from March 6 to March 8 and lasted over five high tides, while nor’easters and hurricanes often contribute to just one exceptionally high tide; this unique aspect of the storm dubbed the response mission “Operation Five-High.” Being later than a lot of nor’easter storms, these wind tides were superimposed on the spring tides which occurred at the time and thus were all near or above record tides.
Multiple Corps districts responded from North Carolina to New York.
Baltimore District supported response efforts in present-day Ocean City and Assateague Island. In Ocean City, personnel worked to restore severely eroded beaches, build berms and dunes to reduce future risks, and address breaches punched through Assateague Island.
This storm motivated the Corps’ initial involvement with the beach at Ocean City, ultimately resulting years later in the construction of the existing coastal storm risk management project that continues to provide risk reduction for the community.
The Storm Ravaged a Different Place than Today
When the storm hit, the now famous vacation destination of Ocean City was still just a small beach town, and Assateague Island was not yet the protected park it is today.
At the time, Ocean City was home to roughly 1,500 people year-round and 50,000 in the summer. By comparison, today, Ocean City estimates that its population swells to more than 300,000 during the summer months. It was not yet home to the large hotels and condos that now serve the big summer tourist crowds. Instead, small family beach houses lined much of the coast. At the time, the boundary of Ocean City still only extended north to 41st Street.
According to the Corps report, virtually every building in Ocean City experienced some impacts, ranging from sand, up to six feet in some places, and debris being piled around buildings, to buildings being completely destroyed. Several hundred homes and buildings were damaged by flooding, with roughly 60 of them being completely destroyed. Damage to buildings was mostly from flooding and sand in the southern portion of Ocean City and from waves crashing into buildings to the north.
Dozens died throughout the mid-Atlantic, and Ocean City had one fatality.
Assateague Island, which some may find hard to picture, was just starting to be developed; roads and structures had just begun to be built. However, the storm did destroy much of what had been built. In 1965, the Assateague Island National Seashore was officially established, preventing future development and preserving the island as people know it today.
The barrier island of Assateague Island was significantly impacted by the storm as well. Just south of Ocean City Inlet, a small breach that had existed since October 1961 was greatly widened and deepened by the storm and a new, smaller breach was also formed further south.
Corps personnel immediately mobilized to assess the storm’s impacts and help plan a path forward toward recovery.
(This is part one of a three-part series about the historic Ash Wednesday Storm and the later construction of the Corps of Engineers coastal storm risk management project in Ocean City, Maryland. Tomorrow, the second part of this three-part series describes the Corps’ emergency response work along the Atlantic coast of Maryland following the storm)