Ocean City Inlet, Assateague Island, and The Hurricane of 33’
Assateague Island, like other barrier islands, represents a unique landmark here on Delmarva. A refugee not only for the flora and fauna that have adapted to the islands challenging character, but also to the many visitors that have come to know Assateague on a more personal level than just a day at the beach.
As it goes with barrier island geology, the coastal processes that work over this ribbon in the sea produce ever changing conditions that can be observed in just a season’s time, and in some instances, in a matter of days, such as during significant coastal storm events. Curious as to where the name Assateague originated from? A Native American word for “a place across,” Assateague was coined by the tribes and sub-tribes of the Algonquin Nation that were settled on the west side of the bays separating Assateague from the mainland. The real locals, these tribes were aware of the sometimes-inhospitable nature of Assateague Island during inclement weather and certain times of the year. Now, several centuries later and occupying a very different world, there are elements that remain and continue to characterize Assateague. Last week’s coastal storm brought 5 days of persistent northeast winds and swell. As you can imagine, a lot of sand was moved and Assateague, at least areas of it, was transformed again, just as it has in the past, and just as it will in the future.
Are you familiar with some of the historical storms that tell the story of Assateague? One of the more legendary storms is that which took place in 1933. Though the National Weather Service didn’t begin prescribing names to Hurricanes until 1950, the Hurricane of 1933 will forever stand among the ranks of named tropical storms that have made an impression on our coastlines. Reaching a category 4 strength on the Saffir-Simpson scale with max sustained winds at 140 mph and a central low pressure reading that dipped to 940 mb, this storm created what is today the Ocean City Inlet. Prior to the 33’ storm, Assateague Island stretched unabated for 67 miles from Tom’s Cove in Chincoteague, VA to the present day Indian River Inlet in Delaware.
With the inlet cut and the back bays exposed to the Atlantic, the saltier ocean water was permitted to infiltrate Sinepuxent Bay, which in turn decimated the populations of fatbacks (Mugil cepalus) and alewives (Brevoortia tyrannus), food sources for many in the area. The Menhaden population, commonly used as fertilizer for crops in the area, were also victims of elevated salinity levels that followed the opening of the inlet.