31 Years on since Hurricane Belle….

A special edition of the Ocean County Review was published in response to Hurricane Belle’s passage in 1976. Belle was the only hurricane in modern memory where the barrier island had to be evacuated at the peak of tourist season.

The satellite presentation of Hurricane Belle in August 1976.

Hurricane Belle had just dropped from a Category Two Hurricane to a Category One, and had maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour with a minimum central pressure of 977 millibars when its weaker left side passed over Ocean County in August 1976.

Currently, powerful Hurricane Dean is pummeling the Caribbean and soon will do the same to the Yucatan, continuing the tradition of the last 12 years, which has been a time of increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin. With Dean’s devastation fresh in our minds, this week we look back at the last (and only) hurricane to force an evacuation in Ocean County during the peak of the tourist season. This of course was Hurricane Belle in August 1976. I was 5 years old, living in Seaside Heights in August 1976, and remember the event clearly. Belle was born off of a tail end of an old frontal boundary. This cluster of storms developed a tropical low pressure center off of the Carolinas, and then moved up the East Coast as a hurricane. (This was similar to the more recent Hurricane Bob in 1991, which was more powerful then Belle, but passed much farther to our east than she did.) When Belle initially threatened our area, she was a powerful Category 3 hurricane, capable of doing extensive damage. There was no more than two days notice for the arrival of Belle, and fear was everywhere. One morning I awoke to find my older brothers taping our windows with masking tape (which we now know is a waste of time and tape) and I didn’t understand what was happening. That day I would learn several new vocabulary words including hurricane and evacuation, among others. The concept of the hurricane was clearly explained to me, as was the dreaded fear that “the ocean would meet the bay”. I knew we had to leave, and would be heading to Brick Township to the home of my oldest brother and sister-in-law. Before we did leave the island, there was time to take a brief walk to observe the various hurricane preparations, which included the boarding up of houses and businesses along the boardwalk. My up-to-then peaceful neighborhood felt like a war zone to me. The day of the arrival of Hurricane Belle was overcast and rainy, with a deep smell of salt sea air and humidity increasing as quickly as the tension. There was a feeling of dread as we left our sea-level home towards higher ground. My entire family waited out Hurricane Belle inside my brother’s newlywed apartment with the shrieks of high winds, the crashes of falling trees, intermittent power interruptions, and the sounds of heavy rain beating against the roof. The good news was that that Belle had weakened to a Category One as it approached our area, with winds of 85 miles per hour sustained and a pressure of 977 millibars. Not only was Belle a minimal hurricane when it hit, Ocean County was on the weaker left side of the circulation. There would be damage, but not those of biblical proportions many feared. We awoke to a sunny day, which was eerie itself given the previous evening’s weather. We quickly learned that we could return to Seaside Heights, and by the early afternoon, we were home. Aside from a puddle of water near our lower floor entrance door, and a fallen, obsolete television antenna, our house was unscathed. Our neighborhood had damage: fallen trees, fallen signs, flooded streets, but nothing overwhelming. It seems that everyone went around to gawk at the most obvious signs of damage. This included the toppled tall sign of the Ortley Beach A & P, and a fun house on Casino Pier, which was completely destroyed. (Interestingly enough, this destroyed fun house was replaced by the Doorway to Hell haunted house built by the Mahana’s of the Haunted House Corporation of East Orange and operated until 1984. This was the prototype for the later Haunted Castle at Six Flags Great Adventure. Many readers already know that the Haunted Castle eventually burned and killed 8 people, and is the topic of one of my documentary movies and of my upcoming book.) Whatever damage that had been inflicted by Belle was soon cleared up, and our lives were expected to go back to normal. Maybe it was my young age, but I had trouble going back to normal after such a dramatic few days. I knew that if what we had was the weakest side of the weakest possible hurricane, then a hurricane had a tremendous power beyond anything a normal person could wrap their minds around. Everybody kept saying that we got off lucky, and it could have been a lot worse. They also kept saying that it could happen again. This began a life-long fascination with tropical weather. I would watch other storms impact our area. I remember Tropical Storm David in 1979 and its massive rains and brisk winds. I was a freshman in high school in September 1985 when again we were asked to evacuate our home for a doomsday scenario: Hurricane Gloria. My Earth Science teacher, Mr. Cameron of Central Regional, said that compared to Gloria, Belle had been a spring shower. Once again there was talk of the “ocean meeting the bay.” When Gloria came to our area, I was so frightened that I took every single valuable possession I owned with me during the evacuation. I really thought it was the end. Fortunately, however, Gloria didn’t make New Jersey landfall, and in fact veered off shore much farther than anticipated. Once again, we were back in a day, and the damage seemed less than Belle. Again, people talked about how lucky we had been, and how the “big one” was yet to come. Now it’s 22 years on from Gloria, and 31 years on from Belle. The big one has not yet come. Given the great span of time between events and the explosion of the county’s population, many current Ocean County residents probably didn’t live here during Belle or Gloria. Many people either don’t believe it can happen, or are complacent if they happen to remember the rosy outcomes of ’76 and ’85. We might not be so lucky next time. Readers should look at the photos of the damage of Hurricane Belle and remember, “weakest side of weakest possible hurricane”. So as I’ve been saying all hurricane season and every hurricane season: have a plan for when the inevitable happens. Special thanks to the Wenzel family of Lavallette for supplying the archive photos.

This London Planetree on Sherman Avenue in Seaside Heights. was uprooted in the winds of Hurricane Belle, a category one storm that passed off shore in August 1976. Notice the water tower, which is painted red, white and blue in honor of the Bicentennial.

The tall sign in the A&P parking lot in Ortley Beach was toppled by Hurricane Belle.

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