New film relives fearsome 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm 

By on September 15, 2023

 ‘Praying that God will spare your very life’

With as many as 300 people in attendance, the Town of Nags Head’s Ash Wednesday Storm documentary premiered at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head on Sept. 14. A co-production of the Town and the Outer Banks History Center, the film was funded by a grant from CurrentTV with production assistance from Rayolight Productions.

A powerful nor’easter, the storm spun off the East Coast for four days, from March 5-9, 1962. The full brunt of the storm struck the Outer Banks on March 7—Ash Wednesday. The National Weather Service called it the Great Atlantic Coast Storm of 1962, but Outer Banks photographer and publicist Aycok Brown was more lyrical. Noting that the date when the waves began to breach the sand dunes along the shoreline was Ash Wednesday, he named it the Ash Wednesday Storm. And the name stuck.

The power and the destruction the storm left in its wake are legendary. According to Erik Heden, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service in eastern North Carolina, the damage from the Ash Wednesday Storm is still unprecedented. A 2012 story in the Coastal Review Online reported that on the Outer Banks, 60 buildings were destroyed and approximately 1,300 buildings were severely damaged by the storm.

“No other storm in at least the last 50 years has taken away more buildings or land than the Ash Wednesday storm and that’s according to the USGS [U.S. Geological Survey],” Heden said when describing the storm in the documentary.

The film highlighted the personal stories of the people who experienced a night and day of terror as they fled their homes in frigid waters and howling winds.

Juanita Wescott opened the documentary by describing what it was like to live in fear for hours, wondering if she would survive. “From six o’clock in the morning till three in the afternoon…with a lot of hours of praying that God will spare your very life,” she said.

And it was Wescott who described her father coming into her and her sister’s bedroom early in the morning.

“‘Get out. Don’t stop or anything,’” she recalled him saying. “So I slid my shoes on. I threw my winter coat on. It was freezing out and I grabbed my schoolbooks…The wind was so strong that it blew Mama over and she fell down to the cement. We finally got Mama back up. It was really hurricane force winds.”

That was at 5:30 in the morning and what she was witnessing was terrifying.

“The water was coming over through the sand dunes and washing down into the highway. I looked up at Daddy and said, ‘Daddy What about school today?’” she remembered asking.

In the film, Buster Nunemaker described when he first realized how bad the situation was.

“I would go…out to the beach road to catch the school bus, and as I went around… our house, the water was already about knee deep…So I immediately went back in the house and I told my mom and dad, ‘We probably won’t be going to school today because the ocean’s coming across [the dunes]. It’s already filled the road up,’” he recounted.

That was the beginning of a day of terror.

“The first place they put me was standing me on the toilet in the bathroom, and I watched the water come in and flood the tub,” he said. “It took me jumping through the bathroom window at dad’s house into a wooden skiff. I can remember the wind howling and blowing and the water still coming up.”

The family got to his grandmother’s house which was on slightly higher ground, but even from the safety of his grandmother’s home, the power of the storm was evident.

“From my grandmother’s house, we watched Bowen’s Store [Nags Head Sportswear] burn to the waterline and for a 12-year-old boy watching, this was out of the norm. I can only say that a lot of feelings go through you even today from that time when things were happening almost instantaneously.” As he retold the story, Nunemaker’s voice began to crack with emotion.

In a panel discussion after the showing of the documentary, Wescott told the audience that even 60 years later, certain events can still trigger reactions.

“When I go to a movie like The Perfect Storm, I’ve had to leave the room and go out because when the waves get so big, it just it’s like it’s coming back to you,” she said.

 

Nags Head’s The Ash Wednesday Storm

In the documentary, Wescott and Nunemaker who were middle school age in 1962, referenced going to school a number of times. In the panel discussion, Nunemaker explained why that was so important.

“What was our social media of the time?” he asked. “School. We were so worried about not going to school because that was our social get together. That was our social life.”

“You didn’t miss school,” Wescott added. “Even if you were sick. You went to school.”

One of the most remarkable features of the Ash Wednesday Storm was how much it was really a coastal storm. Although inland it did spawn record snowfalls in mountain areas, the full fury was felt along shorelines from Florida to New England, with almost no impact further inland.

That was certainly the case along the Outer Banks.

“When you got to Manteo, other than a little bit of wind, you didn’t know there was a storm. They didn’t realize there was a bad storm,” Wescott said in the film.

The storm also struck with little warning.

According to Wescott in the documentary, the experts did not know how bad things would get. By March 6, she could see the Atlantic Ocean was building and a storm coming. But when she asked her father about it, she was told, “’I called the Elizabeth City weather station and they said there’s nothing out there. Not to worry.’”

Asked by the Voice if modern forecast models would have predicted the storm, Heden was emphatic.

“It would be pretty hard not to see this in this day and age,” he said.


Nags Head’s The Ash Wednesday Storm is also available on Dare County’s Current TV.


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Comments

  • Debbie

    Missed this showing. Will it be shown again at another location?
    Thank you

    Friday, Sep 15 @ 4:59 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Debbie, the entire video is embedded in our story. You can watch it there.

    Friday, Sep 15 @ 7:03 pm
  • Claudia Hurd

    I live in Ohio. Will it be available anywhere else?

    Friday, Sep 15 @ 5:05 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    Yes, we included the video in our story. You can watch the whole thing there.

    Friday, Sep 15 @ 6:59 pm
  • Melissa

    Is it possible to see the film if you couldn’t make it to viewing.

    Friday, Sep 15 @ 6:46 pm
  • Mark Jurkowitz | Outer Banks Voice

    The entire video is embedded in our story. You can watch it there.

    Friday, Sep 15 @ 7:02 pm
  • BB Wylie Walden

    Thank you so much for covering this and thank you to all of the people involved with the making of this film and Rayolight Productions. Watched it online here https://youtu.be/bUhDFDBWNnE?si=Fu-KU7r-HTR1hieL thanks to the link in the article and have passed it along to many.

    Having heard so much about The Ash Wednesday Storm, and having seen some photographs, the film was even more compelling as we were able to hear the interviews with people who lived through it.

    Friday, Sep 15 @ 7:27 pm
  • Liz

    I’m very glad the film can be seen here, Mark, for people who couldn’t make it. Thanks. The showing at Jennette’s was standing room only, and then some! The crowd was spilling out into the hall. People are interested!

    Saturday, Sep 16 @ 8:56 am
  • Beachie Keen

    A sobering reminder. Thanks for including the link.
    I wonder if the Currituck commissions will watch and rethink the major construction sketch plan they recently approved with only a 2-lane ingress and egress to Corolla, often Rt12N at a completed standstill during tourist season.

    Saturday, Sep 16 @ 3:30 pm
  • AC Hollowell

    Thank you the voice for running this video on the Ash Wednesday store i was about 5 years old at the time so i don`t remember it at all but my dad told me about it when i got older .we lived in Gates county and he worked for DOT , he was sent there to work there for weeks or so at the time to help clean and repair the roads he drove one of the DOT fuel trucks i glad i got to at least see pictures of what he told me about it
    Thanks Again

    Saturday, Sep 16 @ 9:51 pm
  • Luminous

    Great job on this documentary. Thanks for sharing it.

    One key lesson: the rated category of a storm between Nor’Easter and Category 2 or 3 hurricane does not foretell potential damage as much as do the duration of a storm and the fetch of incoming waves. Those are key factors that made the 1962 Ash Wednesday storm so destructive. Dunes are higher now, but they can only take so much pounding before they will crumble, and it will happen again someday, even in “only a Nor’Easter.”

    Note that in the last five minutes of the film, viewers see very quick shots of what certain Nags Head neighborhoods looked like in the aftermath of the storm compared to what those same neighborhoods look like in 2023.

    Monday, Sep 18 @ 3:25 pm