By all accounts, Monday, March 5, 1962 looked like nothing unusual would occur in Cape May. The forecast called for cloudy skies and a chance of rain. But two storms, a new moon, and a spring equinox formed to create a colossal three day assault of winds averaging 55 knots, and 25 to 35 foot waves which battered the Jersey coast knocking out heat and electricity and destroying forever the landscape of Beach Avenue. By Ash Wednesday, March 7, the Nor’easter of 1962 caused more damage than any other single storm in Cape May’s history.
Cecilia Love, a young widow living on Benton Avenue, in the Frog Hollow section of the city, was alone in the house with her twin daughters. This is her account of the storm.
Thursday March 8, 1962
Greetings from the “Disaster Area!”
Television reception here is terrible so I can’t half see what newsreels you’re getting about this storm. From what I can see on TV, though, it looks mild compared to what it is. Then again, the impression is “complete” devastation when actually the destruction is quite localized. Our whole beachfront seems devastated but parts of it are still standing “almost” intact behind debris of broken pavement & boardwalk. Other parts are so completely devastated that only someone who knew what it looked like before could realize what the angry ocean had claimed.
Beach Drive is no more. In some parts, it’s just completely gone; in others, it’s sunk to beach level; and in still others, it’s covered with mountains of debris. Of all the boardwalk stores, only the ones in front of Convention Hall and Frank’s Playland remain. Convention Hall itself is dragging its tail end in the ocean.
The street in front of the house that Steve Steger built was eaten away. As the foundation of the house became undermined, the house itself collapsed.
Unlike hurricanes, we had no warning and so nothing was battened down. The streets are full of garden furniture, for example, which would have been safely stored or fastened down. Because of the strong wind, places were torn apart and everything floated away. There are refrigerators, mattresses, oil tanks, etc. strewn all over.
No one is allowed into these towns unless they own property here and can prove it. State police are all over. As usual, Cape May was a little late and the motels and stores were looted of salvageable articles before the state police took over.
We are now on a high part of Cape May and it doesn’t seem possible that just two blocks away the water is knee deep and that we still had about six feet of water in our “Hollow” at high tide today.
Cape May was luckier than Wildwood as far as electricity is concerned. Many people whose heaters are not working are able to stick it out with portable electric heaters and gas or electric stoves. In our section, the fuses blew so that when electricity was restored we couldn’t use it.
We were luckier than some of our neighbors in that we were able to maintain a 56° temperature with the fireplace. All of my supply wood floated out of the basement when the doors were blown down, but I managed to fish enough floating driftwood to keep the fireplace going for almost 24 hours. I had enough dry wood to start it but after that we threw soaking wet wood in and it burned slower but hotter. We had a picnic lunch in our living room of the best baked beans and hot dogs you ever tasted.
Bunsen is boarding at the SPCA and we’re hoping that she won’t die of loneliness. She’s such a baby now – second childhood, I think.
Since our fuses blew it is quite certain that our wiring was wet and therefore it will have to be dried thoroughly before our electricity can be restored. I’m staying with our electrician so I’m hoping that we can have our wiring fixed. Don’t know how my priority rates with the plumber. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t have sub-freezing temperature which would freeze the pipes before either the heater is rehabilitated or the system can at least be drained.
Friday, March 9, 1962
Cape May has recently added a vocational school which includes Beauty Culture in its courses. The school was open today and the twins and I took advantage of the low-cost, no-appointment service to get shampoos and sets. We had bathed the night before for the first time since Monday and were quite refreshed, even if we didn’t have fresh clothing to get into. How little we appreciate common every day conveniences until we lose them.
On our way to the school we drove past our neighborhood. It was still quite deep in water. At noon, the sky became dreary and it began to rain. We headed straight home. I spent the afternoon playing chess with the two boys aged seven and nine and was amazed at their proficiency. I felt relaxed for the first time since Monday night.
At 5 o’clock Pick called to tell me the good news that the water was only between the first and second step. By 9 o’clock the center of the street was drained. I almost felt like celebrating. Even the prospect of work I’ll have and the cost of repairs didn’t daunt my feeling of elation. I mentally mapped my activities for tomorrow.
Right now I’m baby sitting for the people at whose house I am staying – the least I can do. Karen went to sleep early with a headache. She is now running a temperature and babbling away deliriously at intervals. It’s the doctor’s day off so I didn’t call him at this late hour. Instead, I’m giving her the medicine he prescribed for me yesterday when I went to his office for treatment.
We’re really quite fortunate to have been offered this place for refuge. We have a room with three beds and a private bath and as a matter of fact we have the whole second floor to ourselves. There’s another empty bedroom here and Karen moved there last night because she said I snored.
They say that good deeds pay off. I always believed it but now have proof. The girl at whose house I am staying is one with whom I have worked on church bazaar committees for several years. We worked well together and always made a profit for our booth. Outside of that we were strangers. She is a long-time resident of Cape May and knows just about everyone in town. Her father, at one time, was president of the Chamber of Commerce. She called us at a time when we knew we had to leave our house but didn’t know where we would go. We had made arrangements to leave at low tide and it was only shortly before our deadline to leave that Christine called. I had never done her a good turn, but by working on a church committee which meant my time and energy, I had made her acquaintance. Of all the hundreds of people in Cape May, I’ll never know why she called me. But I do know that it was a Godsend to be able to make ourselves at home in a warm, clean home which had enough space to accommodate us without inconveniencing anyone.
While downtown today I couldn’t help but feel that the town was full of walking zombies. People were starry-eyed, so preoccupied with their own problems, I guess, that they weren’t conscious of their surroundings. Most of the people looked as if they’d slept in their clothes and probably had because there are few people whose heaters weren’t damaged. I really don’t know how the plumber and electricians will get around to everyone.
Cape May was lucky in another respect. We had no serious fires. At one time, Wildwood had 45 fires raging at one time and no way to fight them. It is my own idea that some of these fires were deliberately set because the owners figured that although their insurance covered fire, it did not include loss or damage from flooding. When our own fuse box started to smoke my first idea was that at least a fire loss would be compensated by insurance.
This is the fourth time I have gone through this experience in Cape May. Always before, there was something we could laugh about. There are only two things that tickled my funny bone this time.
The first was a call from Sue after she was settled away in her temporary shelter. She started her conversation with, “Cele, isn’t it wonderful to be able to sit down on a toilet without freezing your fanny?” This probably wouldn’t be funny to anyone unless they had suffered the agony of delaying nature’s call to the point of being willing to sit down on a toilet in a 35° room temperature bathroom.
The only other humor is my spotting trash cans floating all over town and deciding they are mine. I’ve been sorely tempted to get out and pick one up but the twins always manage to shame me into not picking it up. They’ll be sorry when I take the cost of a new trash can out of their allowance.
Damages from the Nor’easter were estimated in excess of $3 million ($20-$25 million in today’s dollars.) Beach Avenue was almost totally destroyed. Convention Hall was rendered irreparable – the present Convention Hall was built as a “temporary measure.” Save for two blocks, the boardwalk was destroyed. The concrete walkway, now known as the promenade, is evidence of how the city tried to protect itself from another devastating storm like that one. The Red Cross reported that a total of 1,259 dwellings in Cape May County were destroyed in the ’62 storm. Virtually every hotel and motel along the two-mile beachfront was damaged or ruined.
Among Cape May’s lost treasures were Hunt’s Pier, a landmark in Cape May since the early ’20s, Bertha Lear’s Yarn and Gift Shop, Sagel’s Candy Store and Fountain, and Ricker’s Boardwalk Gift and Toy Shop. All ended up in the sea. Sagel’s reopened across the street at the Beach Theatre. Ricker’s reopened on the newly constructed promenade and remained in business until 2006. And we’re not sure of the fate of Bertha’s yarn shop; we suspect she did not return.
Now, over 45 years later, the physical destruction is no longer evident. But the storm’s effects still linger in the memories of those who lived through the unfolding chaos and its aftermath.
What is a Nor’easter?
Like a hurricane, a nor’easter is a cyclone, with a center around which winds whirl, but in a counter-clockwise direction. Nor’easters generally track southwest to northeast along a coastline. What nor’easters lack in the wind-speed of hurricanes they make up for in duration. The storm of ‘62 blasted Cape May for the better part of three days. Nothing like it since has besieged the Jersey shore, but there’s always the chance others lie ahead.
1962 Nor’Easter Photo Gallery
For the full article, including more interviews with storm survivors, please pick up the Fall 2007 issue of Cape May Magazine.
Our thanks to Karen Love Farrell, who generously shared her mother’s journal.
Photographs appear courtesy of the Cape May County Museum.