After the storm: The clean up and the boom

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OCEAN CITY — When the storm ended and the water subsided, residents and city officials began the arduous task of cleaning up, but many property owners wanted nothing to do with it.

One of the worst storms of the 20th century, the March 1962 nor’easter caused an estimated $500 million in damage from North Carolina to New Yorkand killed 40 people. The ocean met the bay in Ocean City, waves crashed onto Central Avenue, decimating the island’s vulnerable south end.

Devastation meant the end for some; but for others, it was a gold mine, the opportunity of a lifetime.

“In a way, the storm was the rebirth of the town,” said Bob French, a Realtor and the longtime owner of French Real Estate. “We hit bottom, we cleaned up and the town really changed.”

“It started right after the storm,” said Jeff Monihan, whose father Bob Monihan owned Monihan Realty at 32nd Street and Central Avenue.

“Distraught property owners came in and said to my father, ‘Get me whatever you can for the lot,’” he said. “They wanted nothing to do with OceanCity, they’d had enough.

“Dad told them, wait a year, wait it out, it will get better,” Monihan said. “Some of them did, but many said no; they wanted out.”

Beachfront lots sold for $2,000; across the street, he said, they went for $1,000 in the waning days of the storm.

“In three years, they were getting 10 times that,” Monihan said. “A couple of speculators came down and bought up everything they could get their hands on. It was remarkable how fast things got cleaned up, considering the damage.

“A group of Amish people came down and helped clean up and repair and rebuild,” he said. “They offered charitable help and it was appreciated.”

The storm, he said, set off a boom for Ocean City.

“It was the old guard down there, a lot of people in their 60s and 70s,” he said. “My Aunt Florence is a good example. She had a duplex, the first floor was gone, couldn’t find a trace of it and we found the second floor intact on the parking lot of the Catholic Church at 40th Street. My dad bought Blue Water Marina on the bay at 34th Street and moved the second floor for his office. Aunt Florence had enough, she didn’t want to rebuild.”

Key to the boom, Monihan said, was an effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the island from future storms. A bulkhead was built along the beachfront from 34th to 57th Street.

“Shortly after the storm, they built the timber bulkhead and the sand started to build up,” he said. “The Army Corps then brought in big rocks from the Poconos and built a revetment. It was massive, in front of the bulkhead.

“The beach built up, we actually had dunes,” he said. “It was a wise decision; that made people feel a lot more comfortable about building.”

French said the south end was “pretty much ignored” when the city created a zoning ordinance in 1938.

“No one cared about the south end, no one was interested in developing it,” he said. “It was like being in another town all the way down there.”

After the storm, savvy investors saw opportunity and pounced.

“Fortunately, there was no controversy and the whole south end was rezoned for duplexes,” French said. “I was chairman of the planning board, and John Carey and I worked together to change the zoning.

“A group of us didn’t want to see hotels and motels down there, and it could have happened. The south end was a little knot of houses before the storm, but it came back pretty quickly. The summer of ’62 was a lost summer for Ocean City, but everyone began preparing for what would happen after that. By 1964 the prices really came back and the building began.

“We were all just really glad we made sure the zoning got nailed down,” French said. “They started building duplexes, it was amazing. The south end sort of caught on fire, suddenly it was the place to be.”

After the ’62 storm, the momentum building in the south end spurred development in the north end, he said.

“We had a lot of storms, they started to do more to protect the beach,” he said. “People wanted to be in Ocean City. They built the Garden State Parkway; it was easier to get to Ocean City. A lot of things started to happen and things took off. The developers built the homes and we found buyers to invest in buying them.

“It was a terrible storm, just brutal and for some families, devastating,” he said.

The silver lining in Mother Nature’s fury, he said, was a building boom.

Preventing another 1962 storm

Residents and investors learned a lot from the devastation, Monihan noted.

“Unfortunately, it wasn’t until about 20 years later that the city and state started to aggressively build up the sand dunes,” he said. “With the bulkhead and sand dunes we have now, we’ll be in much better shape if another storm like that happens. We’ll be much better protected.

“The importance of beach re-nourishment can’t be underestimated,” he said. “Especially in the south end where the island is so narrow, we need sand.

“In the past eight years, the administration has pretty much ignored the south end,” he said. “From 52nd Street to the end of the island is vulnerable.

“We need dune maintenance, the deep south end is in dire need of beach re-nourishment, and extremely vulnerable to the next big storm.”

“It will affect property values,” he said. “Imagine – a block of duplexes reaps about $20,000 to $30,000 a year, each building, in real estate taxes. That’s about $360,000 per block. Imagine losing blocks of duplexes in a storm.

“The ratables aren’t all land value down there; the buildings, the ‘improvement’ on the land are almost $1 million for each, for a newer building.

“Think of what it did to the tax rate when almost two-thirds of the south end was decimated,” he said. “In my opinion, the three storms we had in 1991 and 1992 were almost as intense, they just didn’t last as long. The south end held up because of the dunes and bulkhead.

“When you have that sand out front, the water has to eat the sand away before it can take the building down,” he said. “In 1991, I stood on the boardwalk and watched the ocean, there were 40 foot waves a mile out.

“It’s not a question of if; it’s when,” he said. “Are we prepared? It’s going to happen again, and we need more sand and dune maintenance.”


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