Twelve-year-old Pat Haffert of Sea Isle City was ecstatic about having a day off from school. Snow days were common for inland towns, but the white stuff normally didn’t hit her beachfront town, thanks to warm air from the ocean. In any case, it wasn’t snow that had Haffert’s mom concerned that early March day. She had heard that the streets around St. Joseph’s School a few blocks away already were flooding from the early-morning rain.
At the LaRosa house at 43rd and Central, eighth-grader Pat LaRosa had mixed feelings. He was supposed to take his entrance exam for Wildwood Catholic High School that day, but the winds from the approaching nor’easter were whipping a bit too much for his parents to drive two islands south.
Newlywed Margaret Buckholz was a bit worried about her father, Reynold Thomas, the mayor of Harvey Cedars, a hamlet on Long Beach Island. Snow had started in Philadelphia, where she lived, and broadcasts said LBI might be hit with floods. Still, her dad ran a dredging company. Of all people, he would be fine, she assumed.
“It was just going to be a normal nor’easter,” says Joseph LaRosa, 58, Pat’s younger brother. “A little flooding, yes, but nothing we hadn’t seen. Boy, were we wrong.”
Fifty years ago, the Jersey Shore was a pretty barren place in winter. Those who lived there year-round were hearty souls—and they would have to be to face the three-day Great Storm of 1962. Over the course of six high tides, the storm stalled just offshore, trapped by weather systems to the north that would not release the low pressure fueling the nor’easter.
It started with a steady rain in the early morning of March 6. Winds picked up to about 50 miles per hour, with gusts higher. Temperatures were cold for the season, in the 30s, and snow was pretty significant inland, from 4 inches in New Brunswick to 8 inches in Moorestown.
“As the day went on, though, this was clearly going to be something different,” says Jeffrey Monihan, then 11 years old, whose family has run the Monihan real estate business in Ocean City for two generations. “Where we lived it wasn’t too bad, but by mid-afternoon, you could drive a motorboat along Asbury Avenue [in Ocean City].”
For the LaRosas, it was even more surreal.
“You tell the story over and over again, so you can’t forget it,” says Joe LaRosa, who has written a book, Our Perfect Storm, about those three days. “I looked out the window at one point and saw our neighbors’ house just floating by. I remember looking at it, not knowing where it came from, but seeing a window with curtains and the lamp still standing behind it. It couldn’t get more eerie.”
David Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist at Rutgers University, says the 1962 storm, although not entirely a freak occurrence, was unusual because of its duration.
“What made it so spectacular was its very slow pace, a strong storm moving slowly up the coast with a persistent onshore flow of winds from the Northeast,” says Robinson. “What that did was just push water up toward the coast and into the back bays and onto the beaches. Before it could all drain out, there was another high-tidal event. It was like putting a fan in your bathtub and pushing the water all in one direction for three days.”
While towns from Sandy Hook to Cape May had damage, the worst havoc seemed to befall LBI, which for a time split into three pieces—freshly carved inlets rushing from Barnegat Bay to the ocean in Harvey Cedars in the north and Holgate in the south. Margaret Buckholtz is still amazed at what she saw when she reached the island to check on her father as the storm was finally subsiding on its third day.
“The state trooper drove us in, but we could only get to North Beach and had to walk the next two miles, in water, to our house,” she recalls. “The tide had subsided a bit, but my memory is vivid: For nine blocks almost all the houses were washed away, except for two or three, like spiders on their pilings.”
It was a similarly bizarre scene in the south part of Ocean City, says Jeffrey Monihan.
“My Aunt Florence’s beachfront duplex was two stories with a flat roof,” he says. “The first floor was gone from the continued bashing from the waves, but the second floor floated intact two and a half blocks inland and ended up in the Catholic church parking lot. There was a 4-by-5-foot mirror on the wall, intact. There was a china cabinet filled with glasses and dishes, intact.”
The LaRosas moved several times during the storm to relatives’ homes that had electricity intermittently—and were, on the last day of the storm, evacuated by helicopter to a shelter in Dennis Township.
The strangest part about the storm itself, says Joe LaRosa, was that at times, the sun was shining. “It was always windy, but you would think it was over, and then it would get black again,” he says.
When the storm finally passed, the assessment of the damage and eventual clean-up proceeded rather quickly.
“My father had that dredging company, so when it started to subside on the third day, he pulled that dredge over, and he and my brother started filling in 79th Street,” says Buckholz, referring to the impromptu rivers that the storm had sliced through LBI. “He had no permission to do that, but I am sure everyone was happy, and he certainly didn’t get arrested.”
Monihan says what happened to his aunt’s house was common in Ocean City; in subsequent years, many of the homes were put on safer, stronger pilings. He remembers groups of Amish carpenters coming in from Pennsylvania, donating their carpentry and other building skills to get the city back together. LaRosa says folks in Sea Isle just helped each other, and by July 1, renters were back in force, bobbing in the summer waves and eating pizza and custard, just as before. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the Great Storm changed the face of the Shore. The Army Corps of Engineers built a series of new dunes to block back-bay surges and constructed strong rock bulkheads along the ocean in various places to mute future storm surges.
Like many families, the Hafferts of Sea Isle City returned after the storm and discovered that their home was damaged beyond repair. They soon rebuilt on the bay side of the town. “We stayed off the island for two months, and then stayed with my grandfather until we had the house built,” says Pat Haffert. “By the summer, at least for us kids, everything seemed normal. The Shore was filled with optimists in those days, I think.”
Buckholz says many oceanfront mansions were lost to the storm, but the owners eventually subdivided the estates, and as many as nine homes were built where before had stood just one.
“They still built big homes, but now there were more of them,” says Buckholz, who moved back to LBI in the 1980s and ran the Beachcomber newspaper there.
Deb Whitcraft was 8 and living in Moorestown, when her parents—a heavy-machine operator and a waitress—took their savings and bought the Ebb Tide Motel in Ship Bottom the year after the Great Storm.
“You couldn’t give away properties after the ’62 storm, but people who were smart, like my parents, and had some extra money, well, it was a great investment,” says Whitcraft, who has lived on LBI ever since, serving as mayor of Beach Haven and now running the New Jersey Maritime Museum there.
But what if it all happened again: a March storm coming up the coast and being blocked in for days?
“People like to say about storms, and maybe everything else, that the current one ‘isn’t as bad as…,’” says climatologist Robinson. “Well, someday, there will be something ‘as bad as.’ Still, with all the dunes and bulkheads and our ability to use sophisticated radar and satellites for warnings, which we didn’t have back then, maybe that next storm won’t be, at least in terms of devastation, as bad as that one in ’62.”
Robert Strauss is a frequent contributor and author of the memoir Daddy’s Little Goalie.