By TIM KELLY
“It was one hell of a blow,” John Loeper said of what became known as the “Great Atlantic Hurricane” of 1944, which tore through Ocean City 75 years ago this Friday
Loeper, president of the board of directors of the Ocean City Historical Museum, was less than two years old at the time. Though a bit young to actually remember the hurricane, Loeper could imagine what it must’ve been like.
“Ocean City was awash,” he said, referring to the bay meeting the ocean and a miles-long path of destruction in between. “The entire town was underwater.”
In the era before hurricanes were given human names, what the media would dub the “Great Atlantic Hurricane” carved out its own niche as Ocean City’s first “superstorm.”
“Ocean City had never ever seen anything like it before,” local historian Fred Miller said, “and Ocean City wouldn’t see anything like it again until the ‘March Storm’ of 1962.”
The hurricane, described in different published reports as a category 3 or a category 4 storm, packed sustained winds of 75 miles per hour and gusts in excess of 100 miles per hour for approximately four hours.
Wednesday, Sept. 13, 1944, dawned as an extremely humid day, reports said, but gave no hint as to what was to come.
“There was no TV at the time and radio reports were wrong,” Miller said of forecasts predicting landfall in the Carolinas and stating the hurricane’s path would take it more than 100 miles out to sea when it traveled past Ocean City.
Further distraction from the advancing storm resulted from the fact the United States was still in the throes of World War II.
“People were more worried about reports that German U-boats were prowling the seas off Ocean City than weather reports,” Loeper said.
Around mid-day, the rain began to fall and the wind picked up.
“Then all hell broke loose,” an eyewitness said, according to the Associated Press.
Ocean City’s Boardwalk was lifted off its moorings and the wooden planks were strewn about like toothpicks, witnesses said.
“The entire Boardwalk sustained heavy damage and much of it was destroyed,” Miller said.
“The section of Boardwalk north from St. James Place to East Atlantic Boulevard was wiped out,” he continued, “and it was never replaced.”
Cars were lifted off streets and driveways and floated freely until they collided with homes, buildings, telephone poles and other cars.
The entire event blew into and out of town in approximately four hours, according to reports. That was long enough to turn Ocean City into a soggy mess.
Reports said hundreds of homes were completely lost and thousands were damaged. Entire blocks of homes were washed out to sea, reports indicated.
Astoundingly, of the 12 New Jersey deaths attributed to the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, none took place in Ocean City.
“It’s a miracle no deaths were reported,” Miller said. “We were lucky in several respects. The storm took place after Labor Day.”
“In those days, the town really emptied out after the season. We weren’t as much of a year-round community. There probably would have been deaths had it hit over the holiday weekend,” Miller maintained.
He also said the hurricane’s appearance during daylight hours probably played a role in avoiding loss of life.
Still, the event was of such a magnitude that it is still being discussed and compared with the ’62 March Storm and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
The 1944 storm was further bolstered by the fact that the storm surge hit simultaneously with high tide.
“The town was underwater, in some places as much as six feet,” Miller said.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the storm produced some of the highest water levels ever seen and recorded in the state. Reports claimed that some waves were more than 30 feet high off local beaches.
In typical Ocean City fashion, the town responded to protect its citizens and property. Miller said police, fire and Beach Patrol personnel all assisted in removing stranded people from their flooded homes and ushering them to safety.
“People who evacuated their homes or who lost them were sheltered at City Hall,” he said.
He noted that the American Red Cross was on hand to aid victims, as was a cadre of volunteers from the town.
The next day at low tide, Ocean City officials and residents were finally able to survey the extent of the damage, estimated to be almost $400 million when adjusted for inflation to 2019 dollars.
“There was still another miracle to come, the town’s recovery from the hurricane,” Miller asserted.
“It seemed like everyone worked together to get things back in order before the start of the 1945 summer tourism season,” he said.
Yet it would take years for some homes and businesses to be rebuilt and some never would be, he added.
“That didn’t stop Ocean City, which recovered nicely and quickly,” Miller said. “By the time the summer season of 1945 arrived, there were very few visible scars from the storm.”
Today, three quarters of a century later, the Great Atlantic Hurricane is still remembered and discussed as one of the most impactful weather events in Ocean City history.