I’m writing this post on October 29, 2012. As I write, Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the Mid-Atlantic coast, presumably going to make landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Even hundreds of miles away as I am, that radar map is showing angry blotches of orange and red centered over New Jersey but easily extending up to Cape Cod. I’ve never been on the East Coast during a full-fledged hurricane before; those storms that have targeted Massachusetts over the last few years have come when I was visiting my brother in Washington, or attending a cousin’s wedding in Michigan. So as I sit here at my computer, nervously Googling weather updates and “Atlantic City + Hurricane,” I’m coming across a lot of information than I had not expected. It turns out that this is not the first hurricane to seemingly target Atlantic City.
When the storm came ashore, witnesses reported waves of 25 to 30 feet high, and a record high tide level 9 feet above the norm. At about 4:00 PM, portions of the famous miles-long boardwalk were picked up by a 50 foot tall storm surge and flipped backwards, crushing boats that had been pulled up and secured along the shoreline. Steel Pier, once billed as the “showplace of the nation,” was badly damaged, as was the grandiose Young’s Million Dollar Pier. A third pier, owned by the Heinz ketchup company, was completely destroyed.
On September 9th, 1944, a large hurricane was detected near the Leeward Islands, east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. On the evening of the 12th, the storm had reached such epic proportions that warning communications in Miami, Florida had begun to refer to it as the “Great Atlantic Hurricane.” By September 14th the eye of the storm was near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Between September 14th and 15th, this monster moved quickly north, passing approximately 50 miles off the coast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. By this point it was considered to be a Category 2 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of about 80 knots (approximately 92 miles per hour)
In 1944, the United States was embroiled in World War II. Because of wartime restrictions on radio communications of ships at sea, and the hurricane’s location miles off the coast, it often approached coastal cities with little advance warning. Atlantic City schools opened as usual on the morning of the 14th, and then abruptly closed, sending their students home with a simple storm warning. The term hurricane was never used.
The United States Army had troops stationed in hotels along the Atlantic City boardwalk, and these soldiers assisted in the cleanup and reconstruction of the city. So did German prisoners-of-war brought from a camp in the nearby town of Vineland. Ever mindful of the possibility of U-Boats and saboteurs along the Atlantic coast, the Coast Guard dispatched its staff to patrol the beaches lest the Germans try to land spies in the confusion.
By now, as I’m wrapping up this post, Hurricane Sandy has come and gone. Sandy, of course, caused considerable damage in Atlantic City before moving on to Manhattan, and as of November 8th, crews are still working to restore power and clean up debris. Since 1944, weather forecasts and early warning systems have improved, communication with affected regions has become faster and easier. But looking at photos of the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, and then the recent photos of Sandy’s aftermath, the damage doesn’t look much different.
Author and ’44 survivor Margaret Buchholz may have put it best when she told Kathleen O’ Brien of the New Jersey Star-Ledger:
“People are always surprised to see the storm photos. Every generation always thinks they’re experiencing everything new for the first time.”
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For more photos of the aftermath of the 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane in Atlantic City, you can browse the archives of the New Jersey State Library.
“Hurricanes in History.” National Hurricane Center. Web. 28 October, 2012. <www.nhc.noaa.gov>
O’Brien, Kathleen. “Hurricane Irene's predecessor: The Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.” The Star-Ledger. New Jersey Online LLC. Aug. 28, 2011. Web. Nov. 2, 2012.
PCCTV. “Storm Stories: 1944 Great Atlantic Hurricane.” You Tube. Web. 28 October, 2012. <www.youtube.com>
Sumner, H. C. “The North Atlantic Hurricane of September 8-16, 1944.” Monthly Weather Review. Print. Weather Bureau, Washington D.C.