The Great Atlantic Storm of 1962

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Fifty years later there are a few on the island who remember the March 1962 storm that ravaged the East Coast and in particular – Brigantine. At that time, the island had a population of approximately of 1,200 residents. An unusual storm – it was not one of our nor' easters or a hurricane – but a convergence of factors that resulted in one of the most fierce ocean storms of historical record. It struck with unbelievable fury as it destroyed residences along the beachfront.

A report by Dr. Susan Halsey had this to say, “It struck with unprecedented fury as it toppled hundreds of homes and businesses, washed out shore roads, and consumed oceanfront by the mile. The storm, which lasted for three days, came at the time of the highest tides and brought snow, sleet and rain along with gale force winds. Blocked by a Canadian high pressure system to the north, the storm centers converged off the east coast and stalled. Unable to move, the storm grew in intensity.”

“Due to the full moon, normal tide predictions were about one-foot above average. However, the storm surge pressing on New Jersey’s shoreline increased the tides by at least five to six feet. Reports of waves 20 to 30 feet high were common. The unusual height of the tide continued for five consecutive high tides. These two factors were the key to the extensive flooding and wash-over on the barrier islands.”

There were upwards of 2,000 homes destroyed. “Many homes were left precariously on their pilings and 16 to 18 feet of sand was swept away from beneath them,” according to Halsey’s report.

Another report stated that at least 12 persons had lost their lives including members of rescue crews, utility repairman and those trapped by the flood waters.

It was estimated that Brigantine suffered $2 million in public losses and an additional $1 million in private loss (in 1962 dollars). Brigantine CFO Chris Johansen estimated that would be the equivalent of $20 million based on the average rate of inflation over the last 50 years. A 1962 report said the total estimated private and public losses on Absecon Island is $24.5 million, and including Brigantine, this resort area suffered an estimated total loss of $27.5 million in 1962 dollars.

A federal government report released at the time described the storm; “March 6-8 – A severe coastal storm, moving very slowly, combined with high tides on five consecutive occasions in a three-day period, wrought tremendous destruction to coastal installations. Hundreds of summer homes were demolished. The sand from beaches washed away, changing the shoreline in many areas. Many new channels and inlets were cut in the shoreline. Highways were cut in many places, or buried under several feet of sand. A Navy destroyer, the MONSSEN, was beached about a half mile north of Beach Haven. Loss of life from the storm includes six persons missing and presumed dead.”

The flooding in Atlantic City was described as a 50 foot section at the end of the Steel Pier was washed away and a 30 foot section in the middle of the pier was demolished and they lost a 200 foot section of the Boardwalk.

The Central School, present site of the Brigantine Library sheltered 175 evacuees for the night.  The northern end of town (north of Roosevelt Blvd) where some 100 houses were destroyed, damaged or undermined was shut off from the rest of the city and entry was only by special pass issued at city hall.  Armed Marines patrolled the area to guard against looting. A pumping station on Bayshore Avenue and 11th Street North was destroyed by fire. No water is being pumped on the island. Some of the big (water) mains were reported broken. The island had telephone and electric service on part of the island, but not water or gas.

The Morning Gazette of Allentown, Pa. had an interview in

the March 6 edition where they interviewed Sam Kartman who

owned a cabin colony on the North end of the island. Kartman lost 53 of 56 cabins. “Where did the cabins go? They went to Pensacola – maybe Siberia. The rest went down to the city dump,” said Kartman.

Retired Mayor John Rogge recently sat down and discussed the storm as he was serving as a City Commissioner at that time.

“Joe Spiro and I were commissioners at the time and George Moore was the police chief. The island had approximately 1,200 residents. There were three high tides and it was the tides that killed us.” A high tide over 9 feet “above mean sea level” left Bayshore in a foot and a half of water. Revere Boulevard had a foot of water.

According to Rogge, every ocean side property from 14th Street North to St. Thomas Catholic Church was destroyed as well as from the Church south to 44th Street. “Every beach property was gone as well as the beach," he said.

“The fire house was then located where public works is today. I was asked to cover the department’s phone as all the firemen and the two trucks were out covering the fires on the island. However, when the tides hit, the trucks could not get back.

When I woke up the next morning, I looked out and saw a 36-foot

boat floating down Bayshore.”  Longtime residents will remember pictures at the Brigantine Diner that showed a boat that landed in their parking lot.

“Fritz Hanneman was great in getting help to us afterwards” remembered Rogge. Hanneman, a lifetime island resident, was then serving as Chairman of the Atlantic County Freeholders. “He got us equipment – trucks and bulldozers – to help us clean up the mess.” Rogge continued, “I will never forget the man from Pennsylvania who showed up with a bulldozer at city hall and wanted to help. I will never forget all the help we received from outside.”

There was a positive result from the storm. The city hired a recently retired head of the Army Corps of Engineers who did a study of the island.  “He recommended that we build jetties on the beach – and we did – eight jetties every six blocks.  He had the connections in Washington to get us the federal money.”  At the time, the federal government paid 50 percent, the state 25 percent and the city 25 percent.  It was a great investment as the results are plain to see.

It is interesting to note that city council is discussing the possibility of additional jetties with the Army Corps of Engineers in order to combat the annual migration of sand away from the seawall.

According to Rogge, because of this work, the town was the first in the country to obtain federal flood insurance.

The island has been lucky since that memorable storm 50 years ago. We also suffered the hurricane of 1944. But our luck is bound to run out at some time. Those on the island who experienced Hurricane Irene last year – since downgraded to a tropical storm – were extremely lucky to survive a potential tragedy with minimal loss. Residents should be aware of the potential danger of a hurricane or other ocean storm. Evacuation plans should be made and updated. Precautions should be developed. We should all remember that a barrier island exists at the pleasure of the ocean and prepare accordingly.

This reporter was assisted by Brigantine CFO Chris Johansen and Beth Bliss and Linda Crummet from the Brigantine Library.

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