For the past 50 years, this place, made famous by its herd of wild ponies, has escaped the wrath of hurricanes and monster storms that have marched up the East Coast since a nor'easter hit here on Ash Wednesday in 1962.
This week, Chincoteague couldn't escape Hurricane Sandy. The super storm swamped this seven-mile-long island, flooding streets, knocking down trees and power lines, and turning small ponds into vast lakes. In several low-lying areas of the island, seawater lapped up against homes and Main Street's picturesque row of bookstores, gift shops and restaurants.
"It was scary," Thornton said. "The water kept rising, and you didn't know when it was going to stop."
As Thornton compared Sandy to the 1962 nor'easter, eight foals being held at the fairgrounds here for safe keeping galloped through a large pool of water near the ferris wheel. Thornton is the chief of the Chincoteague Fire Department, which owns the herd made famous by Marguerite Henry's 1947 children's book, "Misty of Chincoteague."
In the run-up to the storm, Thornton and Mayor Jack Tarr said they fielded numerous inquires from people across the region, wanting to know whether everything was being done to ensure the survival of the ponies. As Sandy approached, Thornton said members of the Fire Department fanned out across Assateague Island, where the herd resides year-round, and opened up a dozen gates so the ponies could roam the island unfettered and escape the rising tides.
No one knows for certain how the herd of 134 ponies fared; Assateague Island National Seashore remained closed Tuesday, and no one is allowed on the beach or the wildlife refuge where the ponies make their home. Each July, the ponies swim across a narrow channel of water to Chincoteague, where the foals are auctioned off at the fairgrounds to raise money for the Fire Department.
Thornton said he was certain the ponies survived the storm.
"They're smarter than some people," he said. "They knew something was up. When we open those gates, they know it's time to head to higher ground." He said the ponies usually head to an area known as White Hills on Assateague Island, a sandy knoll that surrounds the historic lighthouse and rises 20 to 25 feet above sea level.
"I'm not worried," Thornton said.
While the ponies likely survived, Chincoteague took a heavy hit. Still, emergency managers say it could have been far worse, and they consider themselves and the 3,700 year-round residents fortunate. No one was seriously injured, and it appears that no homes were completely lost.
But the island is a wreck, and it will take weeks to clean up the damage, with large pools of water circling homes and cutting off several neighborhoods, and mounds of sea grass piled up along numerous streets. The causeway to the island was submerged during high tide; several billboards along the road that cuts across the Chincoteague Bay were toppled by winds exceeding 50 mph. For more than 24 hours, residents who decided to remain on the island were ordered to stay indoors. The curfew was lifted Tuesday.
"We had a lot of high tides, a lot of rain, a lot of water down the center of the island," Tarr said. "As the winds picked up, we started seeing a lot of damage."
The winds took down dozens of trees across the island, many of them tall pines towering nearly 100 feet. Teams were continuing to assess the extent of the damage Tuesday and weren't expected to file their final reports until Wednesday night, but emergency managers said it appears that numerous homes were hit by trees at the height of the storm.
Elizabeth Williams was with her three children in their home on Willow Court when she heard a sharp crack outside. She opened the door to see a towering pine tree pitching toward the house. She raced back inside, moving away from the front of the house when the tree slammed into the roof, piercing the ceiling.
"It was so quick and so loud," she said.
State troopers and two National Guard units had been positioned on the island days before the storm struck. Sgt. Charles Apelt, who is in charge of the units, said he made it to Williams' house within 10 minutes, carrying out a 3-year-old girl and evacuating the rest of the family. "They were really scared," he said.
Apelt said he and his troops had performed about 20 rescue missions across the island since Sunday, most of them involving people trapped in flooded homes.
Driving around the island to assess the damage, Tarr reminisced about the 1962 nor'easter. He said he was 6 years old when the Ash Wednesday storm hit and he has a few memories, but not many. As that storm fades into history, the mayor said Hurricane Sandy will be remembered for years to come.
"We've had a couple of close calls, but never anything like this," Tarr said. "I guess we've been pretty lucky all these years."
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