Ocean City unscathed by hurricane Giant waves lure surfers to beach

August 20, 1991|By Peter Jensen and Joel McCord | Peter Jensen and Joel McCord,Sun Staff Correspondents

OCEAN CITY -- Vacationers were quite happy to see the season's first hurricane bypass Maryland's Atlantic Ocean resort yesterday.

Gusty morning winds, some rough surf and a downpour of rain that began at 6 a.m. and tapered off two hours later were the only discernible effects as Hurricane Bob's center passed about 100 miles off-shore on its steady northward run.

No power outages, significant damage, flooding or injuries were reported along the Maryland and Delaware coast. Indeed, longtime residents said summer squalls and winter storms -- known locally as nor'easter's -- generally pack more punch.

In fact, surfers flocked into the giant swells early yesterday, looking for the ride of a lifetime.

Jim Elliott, a physical therapist from Parkville, said he threw his board in the car and was riding waves by the time the sun broke through at midmorning.

"Whenever a hurricane goes by off the coast like that, you get winds out of the west and it sets up some really good waves," he explained, ashe walked up the beach near 50th Street with his board tucked under his arm. "I was watching the weather reports all weekend and knew I was coming down here."

Said Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell, "Any time you walk away from a storm with no substantial damage or injury, you feel real lucky."

Mayor Powell and others along the coast had been worried that (( Bob might take a detour to the mid-Atlantic and cause problems for Ocean City, which has not seen significant storm damage since Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

On Sunday, Assateague Island was closed to campers, and emergency management officials advised people living in low-lying areas, in trailer parks and those with disabilities to evacuate. Worcester County shelters took in more than 900 people Sunday night, including 300 at two Ocean City shelters set up at the city's convention hall and in a recreation center.

The decision was made by 10 a.m. Sunday not to call for a general evacuation of Ocean City, although state police were standing by through the night to direct traffic out-of-town, said Clay B. Stamp, the city's emergency management director.

"The problem for us was the uncertainty about where the hurricane was going to land," Mr. Stamp said. "It takes 14 hours to evacuate Ocean City so that decision would have had to have been made when the storm was in South Carolina, and that's just about an impossible thing to do."

Mayor Powell said the $44 million beach replenishment project, which widened much of Ocean City's beach and established a new steel-and-concrete sea wall in front of most of the boardwalk, would have helped to minimize storm damage if Bob had landed here.

If Hurricane Gloria -- which ripped up $2 million of the wooden walkway and flooded some oceanfront buildings -- struck tomorrow, it wouldn't do nearly as much damage because of that protection, Mayor Powell said.

Dennis Dare, Ocean City's manager, said yesterday's storm did not appear to have caused any significant beach erosion. The storm struck as the tide was falling and at a favorable time in the lunar cycle, he noted.

"The rough surf will be great news for the surfers for the next day or two, but it won't hurt the beach that much," Mr. Dare said.

Ocean City lifeguards kept most swimmers out of the water yesterday because of the big waves. Wading was restricted to knee depth with the exception of swimmers using an attached flotation device such as a surf board or boogie board.

Bill Bails, a lifeguard from Canonsburg, Pa., was patrolling the surf line on foot, tooting his whistle at those who strayed out too far. The tall, white lifeguard chairs had been tucked behind the dunes in anticipation of the storm, and the lifeguards were staying off them early in the day, he said.

Beach patrol officials are "afraid if we get the chairs out the beach patrons will think it's free swim time," Mr. Bails said.

An estimated 300,000 people spent Sunday night in Ocean City during what local business owners regard as the peak of the tourist season.

At the Howard Johnson's at 12th Street only nine guests left early Sunday because of the storm warnings, and most of the motel's 90 rooms were filled anyway, said Darwin W. Brumley, an LTC assistant manager at the motel.

"A hurricane doesn't bother me much, at least not while I'm on vacation," said Jerry Byers, 25, of Chambersburg, Pa., who stayed in town with his wife and 2-month-old daughter. "We didn't get too much, just a little wind and rain."

Ron and Charlene Smacchi of Allentown, Pa., decided not to cancel their weekend visit to Ocean City because they wanted to make sure the storm didn't damage their bayfront condominium. If they had been renters, they said, they might have reconsidered.

"We did debate about whether we really wanted to sleep on the second floor with a hurricane coming," Mrs. Smacchi said.

Vicky and Robert Ross spent 8 1/2 hours Saturday driving from their home in Wellsville, N.Y., to Ocean City, and they weren't about to turn back just because of a hurricane.

"We kept the weather channel on TV, and we weren't too worried," Vicky Ross said yesterday as she and her sons, Stephen and Billy, lolled about on the beach.

"But we were really relieved this morning," she said.

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