by Brad Murphy and Jennifer Brownstone Kopp. Black and White Photographs Courtesy of Tom Hand
There have been hundreds of hurricane watches and warnings throughout the centuries yet Cape Island has never felt the truth wrath of a full-fledged hurricane. Northeastern Atlantic coastal storms, however, locally known as ‘nor’easters’ have wreaked havoc on her coast for centuries. Above is South Cape May photographed around 1917. Pictured below is South Cape May today. An entire town claimed by the sea. If a category four hurricane, or even category one, were to hit, beware, be warned and be careful.
“A dazed woman is walking across a rubble-strewn marsh. She picks up a Chinese lacquer box, a high-heeled slipper, a copy of Lorna Doone, and a bag of cole slaw still sealed and fresh. ‘These were in my house before the storm,’ she says numbly. All that is left of her place now is a few jagged posts on a clean-swept beach. A New Jersey state trooper puts his arm gently around her shoulders and leads her back to his car.”
So reported the Philadelphia Bulletin in March of 1962.
It wasn’t a hurricane that struck the Jersey shore, but two storms joining as one — the first from the west, the other from the south. The two pressure systems met off the coast of Georgia before moving slowly north becoming a northeastern storm. When the storms reached New Jersey they stalled, held in place by a Canadian cold front.
The storm raged for three full days.
To this day, the great “nor’easter of ’62” holds a place in history as one of the most powerful and damaging storms of the century.
The state of New Jersey sits prone — approximately equidistant between the North Pole and the equator — its southern counties bordered by the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. And the City of Cape May and boroughs of West Cape May and Cape May Point lie at the very southern-most tip of the state.
Though southern New Jersey has never suffered a hurricane’s “direct hit,” the storms of the past two centuries speak for themselves. Local history books record scores of tropical storms, nor’easters and hurricane winds pounding this tiny tip of New Jersey.
In 1821 — “Elijah Miller lived in the southern end of Dias Creek (just north of Cape May City). The elements were so threatening that he walked to the school house and asked for his children. The teacher replied, ‘Can’t you stay a little while for we all will be going soon?’ But Mr. M. replied, ‘No, I wish my children immediately and advise you to dismiss all the pupils at once and not wait until the regular closing hour.’ This advice was heeded. One of Mr. M.’s children started to take a short cut through the woods but as the limbs and tree tops were breaking off, fearing they might be killed thereby, he hustled them homeward by the main road as fast as their feet would carry them. Looking back as they went up the hill they saw great waves capped with foam where they had walked but a few minutes before.”
Interestingly, this 180 year-old Cape May County Gazette report is relevant today. Like the school teacher, many underestimate the danger of coastal storms and are hesitant to leave. And there is always the reluctance to leave precious possessions behind.
Today, many seaside towns invoke mandatory evacuation when winds reach Category 2 — 96 to 110 miles per hour — especially for those with homes built directly on the beach front. In 1821, of course, they had no such regulations. And it wasn’t until 1870 that a federal weather service was established.
Major storms in 1893 and 94, 1903 and 04, 1933 and 34, as well as 1938, struck the Jersey coast. But none were quite as ferocious as the hurricane of 1944.
It became known as the “Great Atlantic Hurricane,” a tropical storm noticed first near Puerto Rico. The storm was upgraded to a full-fledged hurricane as it churned toward Miami. The entire state of Florida was put on full hurricane alert but the storm skirted the coast aiming directly for Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
On September 14, covering a 500-mile radius, the storm barely nicked the coast and passed by Cape Hatteras around 9 a.m. turning ever so slightly toward the northeast. Then it picked up speed. Barometric pressure dropped and winds increased to 100 miles per hour. By 3 p.m., the hurricane’s center loomed near Norfolk, Virginia.
At 5 p.m., the hurricane’s center was only fifty to seventy-five miles from the mouth of the Delaware Bay.
Weather alerts were posted from Delaware northward to New England. New Jersey was already feeling the effects from the storm. So quickly had the storm sped northward that Newark motorists and pedestrians were stranded as flood waters swelled over roads and sidewalks. Jersey City was flooded, too, and on the tiny island of precariously situated Cape May, force 10 winds whipped from ocean to bay. And the barometric pressure dropped to 28.83 inches — ominously low.
Long-time Cape May City resident and noted historian Sue Leaming recounted her memories of the Great Atlantic Storm of ’44 in the book, Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, written by Larry Savadove and Margaret Thomas Buchholz in 1993.
Thinking it “just another nor’easter,” Leaming happily helped her mother ready a local hotel as a shelter after a telephone call from the United States Coast Guard requested aid for anticipated evacuees. The Columbia Hotel was located just three blocks from the ocean.
It was only when the wind intensified and the barometric pressure dropped even further — to 28.5 inches — that Sue Leaming became alarmed — particularly after a friend’s father told her should the mercury fall to 28.3, the entire town of Cape May would be “blown apart.”
“I was upstairs and called down to tell mother that I could see lumber floating up Benton Avenue; the wind and rain were furious by then,” Leaming wrote in a letter to her aunt that very night. “I went to the basement and as I opened the door, I heard an awful gushing.”
“In fifteen minutes, the water was up to my knees and I heard my husband, Pic, on the front porch trying to get out the rowboat. The tide had come up so fast none of us could believe it.”
“Mr. Steger, who owns Lovell Beach Concession, was at the beach trying to save his tents. He had put them over on the porches of the beachfront houses, and then all of a sudden this terrific tide swept in and there weren’t any porches left on the homes. His tents were all over town. At one point, I heard a thunderous crash which seemed to come from Mecray’s corner; we thought it must be the boardwalk crashing into the houses.”
What Leaming heard was a 40-foot tidal wave crashing onto the boardwalk, and into Convention Hall and two amusement and fishing piers, hurling pilings and debris into beachfront homes and hotels. The entire two-mile boardwalk was destroyed in minutes. Beach Avenue was completely washed out and buried under thousands of tons of sand. Wreckage from the boardwalk was buried more than four-feet deep.
Leaming’s account continued the next morning, “(We) went down to the foot of Jefferson Street. What a sight! I had no idea there had been such damage. There was no boardwalk at all east of Convention Pier. At Stockton, the boardwalk is clear over to Cliff’s store. The Convention Hall is demolished. The stage and half the dance floor are gone, and there’s no fishing pier at all.”
“Aunt Elnora found an icebox on her front lawn … the sand is halfway up Stockton Avenue. That lovely house with the stone wall on the corner is ruined. There’s a big piece of boardwalk with an upright lamppost floating in Ken Miller’s around the corner and the beanpoles are leaning in our Victory Garden, which is no more.”
“The ducks the Shuberts got last Easter are swimming around their yard and out in our backyard I watched a turtle swim in and around the seesaws, swings and slides. He finally climbed up on the slide to sun himself.”
“Now there’s a terrible smell of sewer gas and fuel oil; Pic had to open the door under the porch to let in some fresh air. The fire whistle just blew. Pic started out in his hip boots, but it didn’t amount to anything, and the fire engines got stuck in the sand, and we’re all dead tired.”
Often a storm’s aftermath can be almost as dangerous as the storm itself. Downed power lines can cause electrocution and fires. Contaminated water makes for health hazards, even non-working telephone lines can pose potential threat in the event of an emergency.
From Cape May all the way up the coast, seaside towns were devastated. Residents boiled and drank water from unbroken water mains. Even six weeks after the hurricane, mains hadn’t yet been repaired and the local Board of Health found some families drinking unsafe water. Officials urged all residents to get typhoid shots.
The Salvation Army set up temporary kitchens in fire halls and community centers. According to the Great Storms of the Jersey Shore, one man was so hungry that when told by a Red Cross official the station was only for the homeless he replied, “Look, lady, you give me that piece of pie, and I’ll give you what’s left of my home.”
It was noted in newspapers of the day that the curious from areas like Camden and Philadelphia flocked to the Jersey shore for a “look-see.” The Navy’s Shore Patrol as well as New Jersey State Police turned back visitors, admitting into stricken towns only homeowners who could produce a deed.
Again, a fifty year-old newspaper article reflects today. Many out-of-towners flock to the Jersey shore upon hearing of an impending hurricane. Understandably, mankind is drawn by nature’s spectacles. Mother Nature at her worst — or finest, depending upon perspective. Unfortunately in many of the shore, barrier and island towns of New Jersey, road access is limited. Often there’s only one way in and one way out. Evacuation of local residents can be arduous — coupled with having to vacate vacationers, hasty evacuation could prove virtually impossible.
And those who visit simply to view the aftermath of a storm cause complication as well as heartache to residents afflicted with damage. Desperate to repair and survive, there is, too, the need to restore some semblance of normalcy. Those who come to gawk impair both goals. To be the spectacle of tragedy — a mere sideshow, so to speak — lends more even tragedy to the situation.
The dazed woman who walked across the rubble-strewn marsh in 1962 retrieving the four remaining pieces of her life is not unlike tens of thousands who have survived Jersey shore storms.
The March ’62 nor’easter was bad, even worse than the ‘44 hurricane. Cape May City evacuated at least 2,000 people — half of the city’s permanent population. Electricity, heat, water and sewage facilities were lost. Army trucks rescued the stranded. The small town of South Cape May, located directly on the beach between Cape May City and Cape May Point, and already suffering from the ocean’s ravage, washed completely to sea — never to exist again. The 1962 nor’easter did more damage than any other storm in history. President John F. Kennedy declared the affected communities “disaster areas” on March 9, 1962.
Tropical storms, nor’easters and even the fringes of full-fledged hurricanes continue to affect New Jersey. In 1985, Hurricane Gloria veered dangerously close to the coastline. As the hurricane sped steadily north, hurricane experts called for a direct hit on either northern Delaware or Cape May City. Mandatory evacuation was enforced. Most left. But some did not.
Fortunately, the storm turned toward the west. But Gloria’s winds and rains still wreaked much havoc. Downed power lines, flooding, wind damage, and every sort of debris imaginable met those returning to the island.
Last year, Hurricane Floyd threatened the coast of New Jersey. Tides and winds swelled, waves crashed violently against the ocean jetties and flooded parts of the beachfront. Yet Cape May fared well compared to many other communities including parts of North Carolina and, ironically, Philadelphia, where rivers and streams crested high above their banks.
Each year, hurricane “season” arrives, the month of September the most crucial. Many say Cape May has been lucky all these years. But the same folks, and many others, say Cape May is past her due — a “hundred-year storm” is more than due.
And despite the many advances in forecasting weather patterns, formalizing evacuation procedures and restrictive building codes, fast-moving, unpredictable violent storms can prove to be a losing battle.
For we remain always at Mother Nature’s mercy…
What’s a Category 5 Storm?
When the winds in a tropical depression reach 39 mph it’s considered a tropical storm and is given a name.
At 74 mph it becomes a hurricane and is rated on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale based upon maximum sustained winds.
A Category One storm, 74-95 mph with a 4-5-foot storm surge, mostly effects “unanchored mobile homes, shrubbery, and trees and causes some coastal flooding and minor pier damage,” according to the National Hurricane Center.
At Category Two, 96-119 mph with a 6-8-foot surge, there is increased damage to vegetation including downed trees and considerable mobile home damage. Coastal and low-lying escape routes flood 2-4 hours ahead of the storm and unprotected small craft break moorings
At Category Three, 111-130 mph with a 9-12-foot surge, it becomes a major hurricane that can destroy mobile homes, close escape routes as much as five hours before its arrival and flood coastal homes and structures. Areas generally lower than 5 feet above mean sea level (ASL) could flood as far as eight miles inland.
With a Category Four storm, 131-155 mph and a 13-18-foot surge, roofs will blow off, homes near the shore will suffer serious damage and people living below 10 feet ASL would have to evacuate.
It becomes Category Five if the winds climb above 155 mph and the land area would suffer catastrophic damage with a storm surge above 18 feet. People living within 10 miles of the shoreline might have to be evacuated and structural damage would be extensive.
Hurricane Andrew, the most costly hurricane in American history, was a Category Four. It struck the community of Homestead in south Florida during mid August 1992. Andrew destroyed more than 80,000 homes, made more than 200,000 people homeless, and caused an estimated $25 billion in damage.