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May 3, 2007

The 1933 Ocean City Storm(s)

Tom McLaughlin

Crisscrossing the Atlantic, 1933 was a busy storm season. One after the other, these behemoths from the tropics appeared and slowly traveled the Atlantic to the United States, the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.

Twenty-one storms, that we know of, there were no satellites then, wandered the waters. Mexico took the brunt of most of the action with seven of them slamming into her coast. Four banged into the Gulf states. Others meandered around, coming ashore in Central America. The fate of still others remains unknown as their tracking lines vanish.

Three came close to Ocean City, but only one had any major effect. Named the Great Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane, it would open the inlet changing Ocean City from a dandy populated bathing center to a full-fledged fishing arena.

The weather before the hurricanes had been unsettled. In Eastern Canada what coastal and mariner people call a dry nor'easter had formed. Most of the city and local newspapers named it a "freak nor'easter" which slowly sank as far south as North Carolina. The temperature dropped along the coast to the mid- and upper-60's, unseasonable for mid August.

And the wind blew and the seas rose and strange storms formed and dissipated. Gales 70-miles-per-hour suddenly buffeted the Jersey shore on Sunday, August 21, 1933. The abrupt bursts caught fisherman and skiffs off guard. A fishing boat and one under sail were lost costing seven lives. One boat was floundered by "a double wave of large proportions." Beach goers watched as small powerboat capsized trying to make it through the inlet. A plane flew out to fishing vessels, dropping bottles with messages urging the ships to return to port.

On the beach, "freak waves, ploughing (sic) up suddenly from the sea, caught bathers unawares in many instances, dragging them into deep water." At Ocean City, New Jersey, "a giant comber thundered upon the beach where more than 100 people were lying on the sand. Caught in the swirling backwash, twenty five were carried into the surf, but all were rescued by lifeguards."

Storm warnings were posted along the entire Atlantic Coast on Monday. In the Chesapeake Bay, boats headed home. A scow from Gibson Island loaded with watermelons held fast. The storm, said by seamen to be one of the worst in several years, turned the Chesapeake Bay into a seething expanse of white caps. The tug Point Breeze was capsized, killing chief engineer Percy Harrison. The remaining six members were rescued.

The litany of strange weather events continued. A huge rainsquall swept the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club's 41st annual regatta breaking masts and ripping out sails.

Ocean City, Maryland, must have experienced similar conditions; but copies of the Salisbury paper for the period have been lost. The carving of the inlet was only a few days away, so there was no fishing, pleasure or other vessels to be damaged or destroyed while trying to make their way to port. Pound boats, that were shoved through the surf to fish and then returned to shacks, remained in shore. It was reported that eight inches of rain fell in Ocean City on Sunday with six in Berlin.

Nobody is quite sure what this first storm was. Some feel it was a disturbance from Greenland or Iceland due to the extreme drop in temperatures. Others relate that it could have been an undetected hurricane that quickly formed off the coast. Still others say it may have been a low pressure system that sank down from Canada. Whatever it was, The Washington Post called it a "cyclone;" the effects were felt from New Jersey to North Carolina.

The long period of strong northeast winds pushed the seawater west and filled the back bays. Slowly, on the abnormally high tides, the water flowed up the creeks and rivers. The sponge-like floors of the wetlands absorbed the water and the water then rose atop the grasses.

How did so much water, capable of cutting an eight-foot deep inlet, back up into the Bays? One clue, from the Snow Hill paper, states one or more, but definitely one, inlet cut across the barrier island. Did this mystery inlet, or inlets, allow ocean water to be rush in? Did it close just as quickly as it formed leaving no record? Whatever it was, most accounts agree this first storm departed or was pushed out by the incoming tropical disturbance.*

On Monday, August 22, storm warning for an approaching hurricane were issued from the U.S. Weather Bureau from Cape Hatteras to Boston. Reports from Bermuda had indicated a low barometer with the storm passing about 220 miles south with winds packing 80 M.P.H. winds. The Cunard Cruise Ship California could not put into port at Hamilton and returned to New York City.

The hurricane moved up the coast and came ashore along the North Carolina-Virginia state line, Monday into Tuesday. Effects from this storm with a northeast wind were felt in Ocean City on the same days with full force on Wednesday, according to Snow Hill weather observer Richard Leake's report and the Baltimore weather station. The center tracked through Washington to Baltimore and north into Pennsylvania.

>From here things get muddled. The weekly Snow Hill newspaper does not differentiate between the storms and when the damages occurred. They admit most of the reports are confusing, but acknowledge "tidal waves" were responsible for most of the damage.

But what could they have meant by "tidal waves?" In front of the downtown establishments, there was no beach as we know it today. The ocean normally swept up to the boardwalk and swimmers used ropes to guide themselves into the ocean for a dip. Fashion dictated a white skin and the bronze look had not yet arrived.

During the storm, the southern portion of the boardwalk, where the inlet was cut, washed away as did the fishing shacks housing the pound boats. However, only half of the boardwalk parallel to the ocean and in front of the hotels was damaged despite the proximity to the sea. The boards only had to be repositioned and nailed back down. There was very minor damage to the ocean front hotels and they reopened a few days later. If there had been "tidal waves," damage to the hotels should have been much more severe.

Many factors combined to carve the inlet. The "dry nor'easter" over the weekend could have pushed water across other parts of the uninhabited island, filling up the bays. A freak five-inch rainstorm on Sunday added more water. The spring tide (this tide has nothing to do with the season) occurred on Sunday into Monday with the new moon. Tides are normally a higher during this period.

The "freak" nor'easter coupled with the spring tide and other bizarre weather events including the multi-inch rainstorm would have combined to further add water the back bays. Berlin reported six inches and the floodwaters from St. Martin River could have added to the mixture.

The passage of the Great Chesapeake and Potomac storm added still more water from the heavy rains. The St. Martins River and other creeks drained eastern Worcester County into the Coastal Bays.

As the storm passed to the west, it caused the winds to switch from the Northeast to the Southwest forcing the water in the flooded back bays outwards, carving the inlet to the ocean.

According to the Baltimore hourly report, at 11:42 P.M. Tuesday night the wind had switched to the southwest and the barometer began to rise. This was the same time frame in which at least two inlets were cut, the present one and one near the old inlet, five miles south of the present one.

News articles from The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Snow Hill Democrat Messenger all reported severe damage to Ocean City immediately after the storm. Wire services carried them nationwide. These early assessments, often quoted in later books, were incorrect and the newspapers filed accurate stories, although not prominently displayed, over the next weekend.

Obviously, angry businessmen purchased ads in the Baltimore Sun Sunday edition. "The George Washington Hotel is open for business as usual! You can drive from Baltimore to our door in ease and comfort. Reports of damage were greatly exaggerated. Come and see for yourself!"

Another, "Extent of the damage to the Majestic Hotel is very slight and I am serving old and new guests as usual. C. Parker Smith, Prop." And, "Roosevelt Hotel, Ocean City, Md. is open and undamaged. Stories about the storm are exaggerated. See the new inlet and enlarged beach." Nineteen hotels united under one large banner informing they are fully open.

The storm or storms, freaks of nature, if there is such a thing, and inlet or inlets all combined to open the Coastal Bays to the sea and began the huge fishing industry now in decline today. Whatever the cause or causes, the Coastal Bays and Atlantic fisheries need our protection and working together we can restore them to their pre-1933 glory.

* There are problems with this scenario and the mystery storm. Richard Leake's monthly report to the Department of Agriculture from Snow Hill stated the Sunday winds were southwest and sky was cloudy with mist but no rain. The Airways Weather Report from Baltimore stated the winds blew all day from the northeast. Obviously, the wind cannot blow from two different directions at the same time. A northeast wind supports the above scenario, but the southwest wind negates it.

Tom McLaughlin writes from Ocean City: E-mail him at

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