The Assateague
Naturalist

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The Ash Wednesday Storm

On March 6, 1962, an unusual combination of three pressure areas created one of the worst extratropical cyclones experienced in this country. The storm parked for almost two days a few miles off the coast of nearby Wallops Island as the new moon brought in a spring tide, and the combination resulted in tidal waters of more than six feet above normal. The storm has been named the "Ash Wednesday Storm" since the most destructive effects were felt on March 7, Ash Wednesday.

For two days, as Time reported (March 17, 1962), "the water rolled over coastal barriers from Connecticut to North Carolina. When it was over, the damage was estimated at $300 million."

Many residents of Chincoteague first considered the storm to be just another northeaster when it struck with wind, rain, and snow on March 6. But by Ash Wednesday with sixty mile-an-hour winds, heavy, cold rains, gusts of hurricane force, and flooding, it was clear that something unusual had developed.

Massive waves rushed over the dunes on Assateague and spilled into Chincoteague Bay which lies between the island and the mainland of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland. The bay, already high from the spring tide and the wind-blown surge from the ocean, rose even more, and the Chincoteague causeway partially blocked the retreat of the rising waters.

The extensive flooding that ensued affected, of course, not only Assateague; the community on Chincoteague and other small towns on the shores of the bay suffered great damage. On Chincoteague, over 1,200 homes were damaged, large boats were carried by flood waters into the heart of town, over ninety percent of the cars suffered flood damage, the poultry industry was destroyed.

Little was reported on the effects of the storm on the wildlife population of Assateague beyond the fact that only five ponies owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department died (the others survived in the higher areas of the island). Two new inlets between the ocean and the bay were formed south of Ocean City, dunes were destroyed, and a great deal of sand was washed into the bay and ocean--events that are not at all unusual during the storms that have swept over the island through the centuries, reshaping it and participating in its slow migration to the west.

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