Pat Haffert and his family were starting to eat dinner at their oceanfront house in Sea Isle City when the piling supporting their home, pounded for hours by waves washing away the surrounding sand, gave way.

The house lurched. Dishes went flying. Children and adults were thrown from their chairs. China cabinets and the refrigerator doors flew open. The chaos resembled a scene from the movie “Titanic.”

Haffert’s father ordered his wife to “take the children and run.”

Pat Haffert, then 12, his siblings and cousins scrambled from the precariously perched house. They waded through thigh-deep frigid floodwaters, finding safety at a neighbor’s house. The adults soon followed.

That was the evening of March 6, 1962. By next afternoon, all that was left of 5006 Marine Place was a pile of sticks and a soggy couch.

***

Fifty years ago this week, the March Storm of 1962 parked over the ocean and battered the Mid-Atlantic coast, from North Carolina to Cape Cod, for three days, killing at least 18 people in New Jersey. Many of those who lived through it said there was little warning from weather forecasters — modern forecasting tools, including satellites, did not yet exist. Floodwaters rose quickly — and never went down because strong winds kept the tide from receding out of the bays.

Waves ran as high as 25 feet, according to the book “Great Storms of New Jersey,” written by Larry Savadove and Margaret Buchholtz, and sent surges of water onto the beach, washing away dunes, boardwalks, bulkheads and houses. Wind gusts were up to 84 mph.

Mainland neighborhoods near tidal waterways were under several feet of water. On many barrier islands, the ocean met the bay in the streets. Much of the oceanfront real estate, from Cape May to Sea Bright, was left in ruins.

Damage, in 1962 dollars, was estimated at $260 million. Adjusted for inflation, that is the equivalent of nearly $2 billion today.

In the 50 years since the storm, the region’s coastal population has more than doubled. Property values have soared, lots have been subdivided. Wetlands have been filled, and the bayfront has been developed and bulk-headed.

Beaches in many municipalities have been artificially widened, and expansive dunes have been erected. Building codes have been strengthened over the years, and all new construction or major renovation work must bring buildings in line with strict federal flood standards.

Living along the coast still comes with a risk, however. Blue skies, calm seas and refreshing breezes can quickly wash away the memories of what a savage ocean will destroy.

It’s not a matter of if a storm of the magnitude of the March Storm of 1962 could occur again — the question is when. And how much damage a storm could leave behind depends on location and the storm’s dynamics.

***

Weather forecasting improvements, policy changes and re-engineered infrastructure have added to the South Jersey coast’s ability to withstand storms.

No matter what protective structures have been erected or how many houses have been raised on piles, however, a storm lasting three days or longer could still cause catastrophic damage to the barrier islands and mainland tidal communities.

David Robinson, a state climatologist with Rutgers University, said meteorologically the March Storm of 1962 was not considered that strong of a storm. What made the storm so devastating was its combination with abnormally high tides and its unusually long duration, Robinson said.

One of the immediate after-effects of the storm on public safety and policy was that many municipalities quickly enacted building codes requiring houses along beach blocks to be built on piling driven at least 20 feet into the sand. Structures today also are built with hurricane straps and braces that bolt the entire house, floors, walls, roof and all, together and, effectively, tie the building to the piling.

Building codes and technological advances in materials and engineering design mean that houses and buildings on the barrier islands may suffer less damage from flooding and wave action. The unique extra engineering for coastal houses, however, adds about $20,000 to the cost of the structure, Ventnor-based builder John Van Duyne said.

Several decades and more storms — though none as catastrophic as the 1962 March Storm — prompted New Jersey to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create a shoreline protection system of dunes and regular beach replenishments. Yet that shoreline project has not been completed for many reasons, such as funding availability and ongoing disputes with homeowners who don’t want a sand dune blocking their view of the ocean.

While the oceanfront arguably is more protected now in most South Jersey shore communities, property along the back bays and tidal creeks remains at risk, said Tom Herrington, a coastal engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Development has filled in wetlands along and near the back bays. In response to the increasing development pressure on the salt marshes, the state enacted a law in 1970 prohibiting filling of tidal wetlands.

Tidal wetlands serve as critical habitat, water filter and a sponge that absorbs rising floodwaters during storms, Herrington said. Development and bulk-heading along the bay, along with fewer wetlands, could result in severe tidal flooding if a storm similar to the March Storm of 1962 were to hit again, Herrington said.

“The marshes and the wetlands can naturally absorb that elevated water level, and it backs up through the rivers,” Herrington said. “But what happens in a developed coast, where we have a lot of bulk-heading and a lot of development is ... we basically made the bay a bathtub. That water has no place to spread out, so it keeps going up and over the bulkheads.”

***

Land and building value in Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport, the four municipalities that make up Absecon Island, totaled $114 million in 1962.

Today, the total value on Absecon Island is $25.5 billion. Casinos now occupy expensive oceanfront real estate in Atlantic City, multimillion-dollar homes crowd the beach blocks and the growth in popularity of owning property at the shore drives the value sharply upward.

On Long Beach Island, that difference is much more pronounced. In 1962, the value of all land and buildings in the six municipalities on the island totaled $53 million. The total value of Long Beach Island today is $14 billion.

Improvements to weather forecasting now allow emergency management directors more time and better understanding of how a storm will affect the islands so that evacuations can be ordered sooner.

Despite the growth and development in Atlantic City, however, the same sections that were devastated by flooding in 1962 would see the same tidal flooding today if a similar storm were to strike, Atlantic City Director of Emergency Management Tom Foley said.

Foley said much of the city, especially neighborhoods bordering back bays, would be five to six feet under water. Bulkheads have been constructed in Venice Park and other areas, but spillover or breaches could still leave those low-lying sections at risk.

***

How the South Jersey coast would fare under another storm of a similar magnitude and circumstances as the March Storm of 1962 is debated among experts.

Cape May County Emergency Management Director Frank McCall says stronger building codes and dune systems in many communities would result in less damage than in 1962.

“You need to take into consideration all the improvements to the infrastructure that have been made,” McCall said. “If the same storm were to occur today, the pictorial effects would not be as dramatic and as earth-shattering today as they were then.”

Richard Stockton College professor Stewart Farrell, however, had the opposite prediction: “It’d be like Katrina,” he said.

Farrell emphasized that the storm would need to be identical to that of 1962, a massive stalled-out system over the Atlantic, with winds traveling 600 miles across open water and coming during a high tide known as a perigean spring tide.

“It’s kind of rare. The likelihood of it occurring again is small, but not off-the-charts small. Not as small as winning the lottery,” Farrell said.

Duration is what will matter. Sand dunes, no matter how wide and how tall, can take a beating for only so long before breaches form, Farrell said. Once a breach forms, each wave will widen the gap to the point where an entire dune can fail within minutes.

“If there’s a break anywhere, the edges widen very quickly,” he said. “The water just pours through once it has an opening, and that 10-foot-wide breach becomes 250 feet wide in about 100 waves, which is maybe about 10 minutes.”

Protecting property along the back bays has not received the same attention and money as the property along the oceanfront, Herrington said.

Development was not as heavy along the bayfront 50 years ago, so much more property now is at risk from tidal flooding, he said. The beaches have dunes and seawalls that keep the water from surging into houses and boardwalks, Herrington said. But “we still don’t have a way to keep that water from coming around the backside of these islands.”

***

On the morning of Tuesday, March 6, 1962, Ann Kooperman, then 12, walked out the front door of her family’s three-story house on Tallahassee Avenue in Atlantic City, only to turn around to tell her mother that she would not be going to school.

Overnight the water from the bay, just 20 feet from the house, had spilled into the streets. The water rose so much that the pressure broke the basement windows. Her dog, Tiny, was in the basement, swimming in circles until a family member brought him upstairs to the kitchen.

Kooperman and her family were surprised by the storm. They weren’t alone.

Atlantic City Press editions of March 6 called for only windy conditions, with rain mixed with snow. Tides were expected to be 1 to 1½ feet above normal, with possible minor flooding at high tide. Rain accumulation was forecast at no more than a half-inch. A brief article with the weather forecast reported a ferocious winter storm packing strong winds and heavy snow inland and as far south as Georgia, but it made no mention of that storm affecting New Jersey.

Pat Haffert remembers standing at the top of the stairs, trying to hear the weather forecast on TV as his father and grandfather listened the night of March 6. Only one TV forecaster, Haffert remembers, spoke of the storm, warning that if certain systems lined up, it could be massive.

“I remember watching my grandfather. ... I only knew him as this calm and collected man. He was greatly concerned.”

Earlier that day, Haffert said, a wave sent water surging through a pair of groundfloor French doors and into the front of the house. “We had never seen anything remotely close to that,” Haffert said. “It was very, very unnerving.”

By dinnertime, the Haffert family would have to escape the oceanfront home as the waves gradually turned it into rubble.

U.S. Weather Bureau predictions may not have called for a coastal storm, but the tides would run significantly higher than normal because of the alignment of the sun, moon and Earth. Those conditions, known as a perigean spring tide, would include a new moon and would come at a time when the moon was at perigee, or at its closest approach to the Earth during its orbit.

The official highest tide mark was recorded at 8.4 feet at Steel Pier, which ranks fifth in all-time record tides. However, that number may not be an accurate measure of the tide’s true height — the recording station was destroyed during the peak of the storm.

When the winter storm that had dumped heavy snow across the south moved off the North Carolina coast, it sat stationary, rather than forming a classic northeaster and moving up the Eastern Seaboard. The storm was blocked by a strong area of high pressure over the North Atlantic, according to archived weather maps.

“It was the worst possible combination of lunar effects,” said David Robinson, state climatologist with Rutgers University. “Add to that the storm tides, and you had a monstrous, catastrophic event unfold.”

Weather forecasting has advanced remarkably in the 50 years since the 1962 storm. Prior to computer models, radar images, satellite photographs and instant updates, forecasters relied on pencil, paper and a ruler as well as networks of weather stations for information. Meteorologists today can tell if there’s a high-pressure system over the northern Atlantic Ocean that might stall a storm just off the East Coast. They can convey that information much more effectively to emergency managers and the general population.

***

Pat Haffert remembers a long delay between the time he and his siblings made it to a neighbor’s house and when his mother and other adults arrived.

He remembers that he carried his younger sister and the family dog through the floodwaters. He remembers standing on the porch, waiting, listening in the dark.

“All you could hear was groaning of buildings giving way under the storm and crashing of various decks and things falling down and things that were smashing into another. Howling wind. And just driving rain,” Haffert, now 62, recalled last month. “And after a period of time when none of the adults surfaced, I started to cry. Because I thought everybody was dead.”

Haffert’s family became separated during the scramble to escape, with the women and children taking refuge at one house and Haffert’s father, grandfather and brother at another. The next morning, March 7, the children ran to a window to see what was left. They cheered when they saw the house was still standing. But by the time Haffert’s father was able to return to attempt to retrieve some of the family’s belongings that afternoon, the house was gone.

“He simply came in and he told my mother, ‘Everything was gone. The whole house, everything was gone,’” Haffert said. “I never saw my mother and my father shed a tear. My mother simply just dropped her head.”

Haffert’s father ultimately was able to borrow a truck from the city to rescue the adults and children. They all were taken to a nearby funeral home, where they spent another night. By that point, sewer lines had failed and toilets were no longer flushing, Haffert remembered.

On Thursday morning, March 8, as the storm was beginning to wind down, most of Sea Isle City’s population was airlifted by helicopter to the mainland.

The enduring image, for Haffert, was that of the roof of a school bus surrounded by floodwaters. It looked to him like a giant surfboard.

***

South Jersey’s population has more than doubled since 1962, and the only way for residents who either were born in the past 50 years or have since moved to the shore to learn about the effects of the March Storm of 1962 is through stories from those who were there.

“The good thing about the ’62 storm is we can learn from it, because there are still people around who remember it and people who have lived through it,” Jones said.

However, no matter the lessons, Mother Nature remains unpredictable and, if another storm of historic magnitude hits, there will be damage.

“There’s no way to block out the Storm of the Century, other than totally recasting how each barrier island is developed. Which means the beach block goes and becomes open space with multiple ridges of dunes, like those on Dune Drive in Avalon,” Farrell said. “But you’ve given up about $30 billion in ratables to do that, which I don’t see happening.”

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216