OCEAN CITY — Last week marked 85 years since the epic storm of 1933 ravaged Ocean City, and while the deluge nearly erased the fledgling resort town, the cataclysmic changes left in its wake changed the course of history along the sleepy barrier island forever.
Significant storms have hit the resort since, most notably the March storm in 1962, and Hurricane Gloria in 1985, which ripped up much of the Boardwalk and served as the catalyst for the building of the seawall and the birth of beach replenishment. More recently, Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged Ocean City in October 2012, smashing the end of the iconic fishing pier before moving on to devastate New Jersey and New York, will likely be remembered for decades. However, the 1933 storm has marked the test of time.
In August 1933, a coastal storm of epic proportions smashed into Ocean City, battering the Boardwalk and beachfront properties with massive waves and hurricane force winds. The streets of the town were already flooded from four straight days of torrential rains when the wind began to blow and the seas began to rise on August 22.
When the storm finally subsided in the evening hours of August 23, the hearty residents who had stayed throughout began to take stock of the damage. They emerged from their safe havens to find battered and destroyed homes and businesses, streets filled with water and sand, and the Boardwalk, which been the center of summer activity in the resort just a few days earlier, reduced to kindling.
However, the most historically significant change in the storm-ravaged resort was the existence of a new 50-foot wide, eight-foot deep Inlet at the south end of town. The huge waves that pounded the front side of the resort combined with the massive amount of water that built up in the back bays conspired to cut the Inlet and separate the southern end of the town from what is now Assateague Island.
A common misconception is that the surging ocean tides driven by the storm breached the dunes and cut the Inlet, but the Inlet was actually cut by the massive wall of water built up in the back bays that had steadily risen after four straight days of torrential rains. The steady downpours flooded the bays and their tributaries to the point of overflowing and the rising water had to go somewhere.
The surging water that built up in the bays finally breached the sandy barrier island at the south end of Ocean City at its lowest point. Three entire streets at the south end of town were washed away by the tide that flowed from the back bays toward the ocean. By the time the storm subsided, the streets washed away by the surging tide were completely underwater and remain under the Inlet to this day.
On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the storm 15 years ago, West Ocean City resident Evelyn Bunting, who was just 13 years old in August 1933 when the storm unleashed its fury on the coastal area, recalled the ferocity of the storm.
“I was just a kid, but remember it being an absolutely horrible storm,” Bunting told The Dispatch in 2003. “The railroad trestle into town was washed away and we were just astonished that the Inlet had been cut through by that storm.”
Former Ocean City Mayor Roland “Fish” Powell was just a five-year-old boy growing up in downtown Ocean City in August 1933, but he also had vivid memories of the storm when interviewed on its 70th anniversary 15 years ago including the cutting of the Inlet.
“I was pretty young at the time, but I remember that storm and the Inlet being cut,” he said 15 years ago. “We lived on Dorchester Street and Tom Cropper took his grandson and me and another boy and told us he was going to show us something we would probably never see again in our lives. Well, we went down there and saw water pouring across from the bay to the ocean.”
Powell said the amazing spectacle drew crowds of curious onlookers when the storm had finally subsided.
“People were lined up just staring at it and it kept getting wider and wider,” he said. “Seeing that tide roll through there and carrying the battered old railroad bridge and all of those buildings with it was really an amazing thing.”
West Ocean City resident Charles Elliott was also a young child living in the fledgling resort town when the 1933 storm hit. Elliott’s father owned a fish pound business at the south end of town in virtually the same spot where the Inlet was cut and the fishing camps were literally erased from the landscape by the storm. Elliott said in an interview at the 70th anniversary 15 years ago the storm ravaged the tiny town that only went to 15th Street at the time and caused the evacuation of residents and visitors.
“The tide was so high in the bays that it went all the way up to what is now Golf Course Road,” he said. “We had to move out of town and we stayed with family and friends inland.”
Elliott related the story of an Ocean City preacher, remembered only as Preacher Poole, who was briefly separated from his family by the rising tide that flowed from the bays to the ocean and cut the Inlet.
“Preacher Poole was trying to get his family out of there by automobile, but he wanted to go to his house first to gather some clothes and emergency supplies,” he said. “Well, when he got to the spot where the water was starting to breach the town, he got out and could just step over it. A short time later, when he returned from his house, the gap had widened to the point where he couldn’t get back across. It had gotten so wide so fast that he couldn’t even think of jumping across.”
The concept of an Inlet providing access from the sheltering bays to the fertile Atlantic Ocean fishing grounds off the coast of Ocean City was not a new one. For years, Ocean City businessmen with the foresight to understand what an ocean-access inlet could mean for the resort had been petitioning state and federal agencies to create a man-made Inlet along the barrier island south of Ocean City and potential sites had even been identified, but the plans stalled for a variety of reasons. In the spring of 1933, an Eastern Shore contingent, led by Senator Millard E. Tydings, had gone to Washington to petition the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors to fund the creation of an ocean-access Inlet near Ocean City.
The committee approved the new Inlet as an impetus to the Atlantic seafood industry, but the bill failed to pass a vote by the entire Congress before the legislative session ended. A few short months later, the terrible storm of 1933 accomplished in a few days what Ocean City and Eastern Shore officials had attempted and failed to accomplish for decades.
Despite the misery and hardship caused by the storm, the creation of the Inlet would serve as a catalyst for the transformation of Ocean City from a sleepy little resort town to what it is today. While the changes left in the aftermath of the storm arguably changed Ocean City for the better, it likely would have been hard to convince the hearty inhabitants of the barrier island that any good could have come out of the deluge at the time.
In early August of 1933, a tightly wound tropical depression in the warm waters of the Atlantic drew little attention from meteorologists and even less from residents and vacationers of little Ocean City, but it would soon gather strength and make a bee-line across the wide ocean and slam into the mid-Atlantic region of the eastern United States.
It first appeared in meteorological records as a tropical storm on August 17, 1933 with sustained winds of 50 miles per hour. By the evening hours of August 18, the storm had achieved hurricane status and began to attract the attention of denizens of the coastal regions along the eastern seaboard.
Without today’s sophisticated storm tracking technology including computer-generated models and up-to-the-minute changes in direction and wind speeds, residents of the coastal areas knew little of the magnitude of the storm that would change their lives forever. They only knew a storm was brewing and began to take precautions for its eventual landfall.
The fringes of the epic storm of 1933 had reached the resort area as early as Aug.18 when the clouds rolled in, the gentle ocean breezes began to pick up and the rain began to fall. It continued to rain almost non-stop for the next four days at a rate of around 10 inches per day, filling the back bays and their tributaries to the point of overflowing and setting the stage for the disaster that would strike on August 23.
The storm of 1933 as it is simply called — hurricanes weren’t assigned names until decades later — wasn’t the largest or strongest to hit the mid-Atlantic region in recorded history, but it is memorable because of the massive amount of damage it caused along the eastern seaboard and inland. After barreling across the Atlantic for several days, the storm finally made landfall at Norfolk on August 23. The storm tracked from Norfolk roughly up the center of the Chesapeake Bay and it pummeled major population centers in its path with high winds and torrential rains.
While Ocean City was spared the direct brunt of the storm, the surging tides and four straight days of pouring rain filled the back bays and caused the cutting of the Inlet, which was the most dramatic result anywhere along the storm’s path. In the days after the storm, Ocean City Mayor William W. McCabe estimated the damage in the resort to be around $500,000, which was a huge sum in 1933 dollars, but the major immediate concern was how to stabilize the newly cut Inlet in an effort to make it permanent.
The federal government and the state of Maryland partnered on a project to stabilize the Inlet by building two stone jetties, one on either side of the cut, which had the immediate effect of securing its future and creating the long-awaited ocean access to the coastal bays. The commercial harbor in West Ocean City began to spring to life as Maryland’s only commercial port on the Atlantic and the countless marinas, docks and sheltered harbors that exist today began sprouting up to accommodate the ever-expanding sportfishing industry created in the wake of the storm.
The old railroad bridge that crossed from the mainland into the resort was completely obliterated by the storm, but the new U.S. Route 50 Bridge was completed less than nine years alter, which increased the flow of visitors to the resort town and jumpstarted the tourism-related building boom that would reshape the history of the town over the next several decades.
Another unintended byproduct of the stabilization of the newly cut Inlet was a widening of the beach at the south end of Ocean City. Sand that drifted south as part of the natural process of the migratory barrier island began filling in behind the new stone jetty at the south end of town and continued to widen the white, sandy beach, which only contributed to the concept of Ocean City as a major vacation destination.
While the storm threatened to erase the fledgling resort town from the map and caused hardship and despair for its inhabitants, the cutting of the Inlet and its associated after effects changed the course of history for Ocean City forever. While it will always be remembered for its destructive force and the massive damage it caused, the epic storm of 1933 is also remembered as a turning point in the history of Ocean City.