Daily Press (Sunday)

Documentar­y chronicles devastatin­g nor’easter of 1962

A focus on Nags Head, with eyewitness accounts from the Ash Wednesday storm

- By John Harper

The “Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 in Nags Head” documentar­y is, by design, a cautionary tale.

But it’s also filled with stories of bravery, resilience and hope.

The 30-minute film focuses on the March 6 through 9 nor’easter that blindsided weather forecaster­s and locals. The film, together with a public panel discussion, can be viewed on several websites. It was produced by the Town of Nags Head and the Outer Banks History Center, and funded by a grant from the government channel CurrentTV.

A classic perfect storm — two cold fronts meeting a powerful upper-level low-pressure system with the moon in close proximity to the Earth, at the time of the unusually high spring tides — it destroyed or damaged dozens of buildings and homes on the barrier islands, including many in Nags Head, the most developed and populated area of the Outer Banks.

The storm was both strong and enormous, slamming most of the East Coast and the Eastern Shore and reaching the Appalachia­ns, with devastatin­g winds, waves, high tides, rain, snow, property damage and dozens dead, including people lost at sea on fishing trawlers and a tanker.

“We wanted to create a history lesson with a message,” said Roberta Thuman, the town’s public informatio­n officer. “That it could happen again.”

“I hope it’s an emergency wake-up call,” added Tammy M. Woodward, director of the history center in Manteo.

As the documentar­y shows, the ocean breached the dunes, causing massive flooding from the Beach Road to the U.S. 158 Bypass. Many people had to be rescued by emergency workers and residents on boats. Grainy images capture 6-foot-tall sand drifts on the Beach Road.

Witnesses talk about septic tanks being compromise­d, causing shortages of fresh water, and several mention that it was “months” before things returned to “normal.”

The U.S. Weather Bureau called the system the “Great Atlantic Coastal Storm” and it was stubborn, raging through five hightide cycles.

But Aycock Brown, the legendary Outer Banks photograph­er and public relations man — noting that it reached its peak on March 7 — christened the weather event the more poetic “Ash Wednesday Storm.”

And that’s how it’s known 61 years later.

The mini-documentar­y, directed and edited by Raymond Wallace of Kill Devil Hills-based Rayolight Production­s, had its premiere in September at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. About 300 people, including several former and current town commission­ers and mayors, as well as Dare County officials, attended the free showing.

The screening, hosted by current mayor Ben Cahoon, was followed by a panel discussion and question-and-answer session, which included town commission­er Renée Cahoon; Erik Heden, warning coordinati­on meteorolog­ist for the National Weather Service; and local residents Buster Nunemaker and Juanita Wescott, who lived through the storm. Several audience members also shared personal stories.

In the documentar­y, Heden, who’s based in Newport, North Carolina, offers sobering informatio­n, stressing that even a storm 200 miles off the coast like the Ash Wednesday system can cause extensive damage and loss of life.

Nunemaker and Wescott, who both grew up in Nags Head, were middle-school students when the storm struck. Their recollecti­ons figure prominentl­y in the documentar­y, which uses still photograph­y, mostly by Aycock Brown; recently discovered aerial video footage; archival interviews; and narration by local actor Kelsey Thompson to tell the harrowing story.

In one telling passage, Wescott, whose family lost their house in the storm, speaking directly into the camera and visibly shaken, says, “From 6 o’clock in the morning ’til 3 in the afternoon, with a lot of hours of praying that God will spare your very life.”

Nunemaker recounts standing on the toilet to stay out of the 2-feet-deep water at his family’s home.

In a light-hearted moment, he and Wescott recall the disappoint­ment of not going to school, calling it the “social network” of the era.

In a later phone interview, Nunemaker said, “There was rain, sleet, snow, howling winds, lightning and thunder, it was scary for a 12-year-old boy.”

He echoed Thuman’s and Woodward’s thoughts about the documentar­y, saying, “We need people to know the loss of property and life would be much greater now.”

Among the well-known voices in the film are the late Walter Gray, founder of Gray’s Department

Store, and the late George Crocker, known for his businesses A Restaurant by George and the Galleon Esplanade, both in Nags Head. Wayne Gray, a longtime Nags Head resident and former town commission­er, also contribute­s firsthand accounts of the storm’s effects.

Wallace, the filmmaker, spent about five months working on the documentar­y. The work, he says, was eye-opening: “It gave me a more basic perception of the town (Nags Head) and its future.”

And, he says, “I hope it reminds people of the importance of storm preparatio­n.”


“The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 in Nags Head” documentar­y and panel discussion can be viewed on: Current TV, Channel 191 Youtube.com/ currenttvo­bx

Currenttv.org (Video on Demand section)

The documentar­y, without the panel discussion, is available at:

Nagsheadnc.gov Youtube.com/town of nags head

 ?? OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER ?? A photo of the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm’s destructio­n at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, from David Stick’s photo book “The Ash Wednesday Storm.”
OUTER BANKS HISTORY CENTER A photo of the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm’s destructio­n at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, from David Stick’s photo book “The Ash Wednesday Storm.”

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