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The Mast-Head: The Great Storm of ’62

Wed, 03/15/2023 - 18:40

Several friends checked in from afar over the past several days about what they had understood to have been a monster storm rolling over the Northeast. To which my reaction was, “What storm?”

This happens so often to those of us who live out here on the cat-o’-two-tails whip-end of Long Island that it almost goes without our noticing. We smile to ourselves and think ourselves a hale and hardy lot for not losing our minds over a little bit of wind and rain. Foul weather is just the way it is here in the month of March.

Sometimes, though, the late-winter storms can bring hurricane-level havoc to the East Coast. During the week of March 5, 1962, a massive low-pressure system blasted the region, with winds of more than 75 miles per hour and 30-foot-high seas. A gust of 84 m.p.h. was recorded on Block Island.

The slow-moving storm lingered for five high tides, with flooding far inland and thousands of cars and buildings damaged. Forty people died, and more than 1,200 were injured, the Red Cross said. On Fire Island, 35 houses were lost. Four more fell at Westhampton Beach.

In East Hampton, an all-out effort to save four large vacation homes east of Georgica Pond followed the initial blast. Homeowners and the Village Highway Department dumped junked cars in front of one house and in places where the dunes had been severely cut back by scouring waves. On Napeague, a major break in the dunes that had only weeks before been closed opened anew. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller declared Long Island’s South Shore a disaster area and demanded that a dormant $38 million erosion-control project recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers and approved by Congress in 1960 be revived.

Part of the plan was for 50 stone jetties and a new 200-foot-wide road and right of way along the shore. County Executive H. Lee Dennison was all for it. “With a roadway built across the dunes, the property could be developed and the county would gain tax revenue. This could become the Gold Coast of Suffolk,” he said at the time.

That was not to be, but now and then you can still see bits of the cars poking out of the dunes, if you know where to look.

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