COURT HOUSE — Ele Feeney, born and raised in Sea Isle City, recalls most vividly during the 1962 nor’easter of March 6, 7 and 8, watching televisions floating down the street.
A second grader at St. Joseph’s School, she also didn’t understand why the family TV inside the house at 46th Street and Landis Avenue wasn’t working.
“We (my siblings and I) kept getting in trouble because we couldn’t understand why there was no TV,” she said. “I could see it, it was right there,” she said, laughing as she recalled how her young mind worked.
It was beyond her second grade understanding that TV pictures don’t live in the box, they are sent through signals, which require unbroken antennas and working electricity.
“We had no clue what was going on.”
She was also too young to realize at the time the devastation that was occurring to her town and others along the coastline of New Jersey during The Great Storm of 1962, the one that would last three days, bring in five worsening high tides and cause millions in property loss, stacking boardwalks on rooftops, flipping and burying cars and buildings, devastating the coastal shoreline, and causing out-of-control fires and even loss of life.
The lost lives included a disabled man in North Wildwood, who, unable to escape the rising floodwaters, but having reportedly refused to evacuate earlier, chose instead to end his life with a gun.
The winds continued to howl and the rain beat down relentlessly; Feeney and her family would gather together as the nor’easter grew stronger and the waters rose – there were five high tides over the period of three days -- at her aunt’s house nearby, everyone scrambling over a concrete wall that stood between the two homes, to get there.
“The water was coming up,” she said. “We lived in a house with three floors; there were three apartments. Two elderly ladies lived on the first floor. They came up to our place.”
Her aunt and uncle owned a boatyard, and had a knack for predicting better than the weather forecasters when a storm was going to be bad.
“They had filled containers of water,” she said. “They had told my father the day before we’re going to have a bad storm; they always seemed to know.”
“I remember my sister and I looking out the door before we left our apartment. The lifeguard beach house – you could see that. Then we looked out again and all of a sudden it wasn’t there anymore.”
At her aunt’s house, she and her cousin were getting antsy. She said she remembers tipping over a rocking chair, which got her in big trouble with her aunt.
“Me and my cousin David were getting yelled at. We were getting into mischief. There were six or seven kids and five or six adults -- no TV -- no toys,” she recalled.
Eventually they all would reach safety through a helicopter airlift off the island over to Ocean View. Her mother was airlifted separately to the local hospital, as she was about to give birth.
The family house at 46th Street and Landis Avenue would survive what has been described as one of the worst storms of the century, but many did not.
Newspaper accounts on March 8 of the storm, which lasted from Tuesday, March 6, to Thursday, March 8, 1962, relayed the devastation vividly and thoroughly, although it would take time to tally the complete toll the storm took on Cape May County.
“A howling northeaster, bringing March in like the proverbial lion, brought with it damage, destruction and disaster unparalleled in the history of the county,” wrote Lou Rodia and Anthony Zurawski for the Cape May County Gazette. “Houses were swept off their foundation; fires burned virtually unchecked when fire engines and firemen were kept from the scene because engines could not travel in the inundated areas.”
Wildwood was especially hard hit with fire. It suffered up to five blazes burning at one time consuming buildings unable to be quelled due to flooding and impassable streets. Nesbitt’s Department Store burned to the ground, and damage was extensive to the Colonial House bar along with several other stores and offices. A house at 3220 Lake Road was completely destroyed.
In North Wildwood, several fires were reported and “at least two houses burned to the ground,” according to news accounts.
Tuesday night, according to reports, “brought snow, sleet and hail, driven by gale-force winds …causing dangerous driving conditions.”
Water mains broke and residents were forced to boil water to avoid contamination and sickness; the ocean side of Convention Hall in Cape May was destroyed and washed away; about three-fourths of the boardwalk was gone.
Streets were only passable by boat.
Avalon and Stone Harbor residents were evacuated by bus Wednesday, according to news accounts.
The storm affected not only county residents, but also communities up and down the east coast.
“Thousands of homes were wrecked or damaged from Virginia to New England,” including Manhattan and Long Island, which sustained heavy flooding, according to the New York Times, with thousands of persons evacuated and hundreds stranded or left without electricity, gas or drinking water. Rescuers used trucks, cars, boats, amphibious vehicles and helicopters to reach those stranded.
Feeney’s family shuffled between family’s homes in Woodbine, then Vineland, then finally to her grandmother’s house in North Jersey, where she promptly broke out with the chicken pox.
“I gave it to my 11 cousins,” she said.
Hundreds took shelter in temporary quarters on the mainland; the American Red Cross sent 1,500 beds and mattresses and 3,000 blankets to the county.
Coastal New Jersey was deemed, in the end, the hardest hit, sustaining millions in damage. Reports estimated 4,000 homes were lost throughout the state.
For a young girl whose concerns revolved around school days and television, playing on the beach and playing with her cousins, living through one of the worst storms of the century was not frightening.
“It was an adventure; I still don’t feel scared.”
She says she laughs to this day at those who come to the shore to gawk at nor’easters, driving their cars through salt water, ruining their engines.
Meanwhile, she lives in Woodbine now, safe and sound on high ground.
Prices along the coast, she said, have gotten too high.
Contact Avedissian at (609) 886-8600 Ext 27 or at: email@example.com