With the beginning of hurricane season this weekend, here's a look back at a major storm that took the east coast by surprise. The Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 affected many parts of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Later that year, historian and author David Stick provided The N&O with an account of the storm and a look back at how the state has dealt with effects of storms on the state's coastline.
Many of us living on the Outer Banks still find it hard to believe that the Ash Wednesday storm of this year was a nightmare we actually witnessed.
On March 6th, had we thought about storms at all, we would have felt secure. The expenditure of millions of dollars in money and hundreds of thousands of man hours in labor, over a period of a quarter of a century, had paid off in the construction of a high, wide and stabilized barrier dune along most of our coast.
But on the morning of March 7th many of us were awakened by hurricane intensity winds lashing from the northeast. Huge waves, fetching hundreds of miles across the stormy seas, were expending themselves against our shores in a final burst of thunderous anger.
Already the sudsy spindrift was banked against the beach grass in back of the dunes, and a person watching closely could see the first tentacles of foam-capped water sneaking through the sand valleys.
In a matter of minutes, for mile after mile along these Banks, the barrier dunes were breached. In many places, in the brief interval, the dunes simply disintegrated. Cottages, perched on the crest of those dunes, fell overboard. Others, facing the full fury of the breaking waves, were torn asunder.
Almost everywhere the flow of water over the beach was inundating roads and undermining low lying buildings, forming a vast new inland sea between the ocean and the sound. Within an hour much of the work of a quarter of a century was undone....
When the first Carolina proprietary settlements were attempted on Colington Island in 1664, the vessels supplying that plantation entered the sounds through Roanoke Inlet, which was located just north of the modern-day Roanoke Sound Bridge. During the early colonial period, as the settlement spread out along the shores and tributaries of Albemarle Sound, this Roanoke Inlet remained the main port of entry for the colony.
Early in the 18th century, however, the waters which had been coming down the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers to Albemarle Sound, and then through Roanoke Sound and out Roanoke Inlet to the ocean, gradually began to be diverted to the west of Roanoke Island. As this change took place Roanoke Inlet began to close, while the channels through Croatan Sound and Ocracoke Inlet increased in size.
Thus Roanoke Inlet disappeared and Ocracoke Inlet became the main port of entry during the late colonial period and the early years of statehood. But that was not to last either, for in 1846 a new inlet opened just 14 miles east of Ocracoke Inlet, and fifteen years later when the Civil War came to the Outer Banks this new Hatteras Inlet had become the most important on the coast.-- The News & Observer 7/29/62
In 1999, following Hurricane Dennis, writer James Eli Shiffer took a modern-day look at the shifting shape of the coast and its inlets.
Dennis wasn't the first storm to punch a hole through Hatteras Island between Buxton and Avon. The Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 drilled an inlet big enough that a temporary bridge was needed to connect the two parts of the island.
The bridge stayed for about two years, while residents dumped old cars and trash to try to fill it, said Stan Riggs, a geology professor at East Carolina University and barrier islands expert. Eventually the Army Corps of Engineers filled it with sand.
Still, the sea has washed over that skinny stretch of an already slender Hatteras Island at least twice since then. Its location at the island's elbow makes it a prime spot for the storm surge of Pamlico Sound to wash up and break through. "The water piles up in the corner, " Riggs said.
But whether the inlet remains depends on its size, he said.
"I bet it was just an overwash that happened to be a little bit deep. If that's the case, it will never stay there as an inlet. It will be gone in a second, as soon as wave action does its thing. To maintain an inlet, you have to have depth and current flow. It has to be a greater flow in and out of that thing than you have from wave energy."
Inlets play a vital role in the dynamic landscape of barrier islands. They create a flow of sand that helps islands migrate landward as the sea level rises. They also allow the ocean and rivers to mix, creating the brackish estuaries that are vital for fish spawning.
Inlets have also proven vital in North Carolina's history. The state's development in the 18th century depended on shipping through Ocracoke Inlet.
But inlets are fickle things. When Ocracoke Inlet shoaled up in the 19th century, the thriving village of Portsmouth became a ghost town.
Since Europeans started mapping North Carolina's coast, 26 named inlets have appeared on the Outer Banks north of Hatteras village, according to Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University coastal geologist. Now there's only one - Oregon Inlet, which was carved by a storm in 1846.
"They're like corks that pop every time there's a storm, " Pilkey said. -- The N&O 9/2/1999
The Washington Post reported on the 50th anniversary of the storm with tons of links to photos and videos from the other states affected. Check it out here.