The Surging Sea

January 06, 1992

"You can't stop the tides and wind," said Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell philosophically after Saturday's nor'easter of near-hurricane force blasted his resort town. The strong gales and pounding waves washed away the protective dunes and left Ocean City vulnerable to the next unpredictable storm that meanders up the coast.

Such is life on a barrier island. Maryland's popular resort community fared pretty well from this nor'easter. The beach took a shellacking, there was considerable flooding and many homes near the ocean got clobbered. But this storm hit Ocean City at the low tide of its tourist season: few visitors were in town. There was no loss of life anywhere along the coast.

Delaware's beach communities, though, were hammered. Property damage was severe. The winds were clocked at 83 mph north of Bethany Beach. Bethany lost half its boardwalk and the rest was badly damaged; Rehoboth Beach lost its entire mile-long boardwalk, and Dewey Beach had its water and sewer lines ripped open as the sea surged through the community into Rehoboth Bay to the west. Protective dune barriers were obliterated.

The popularity of these resort towns contributed to the scope of the damage. Barrier islands were never meant for the kind of overbuilding that occurred in Ocean City, for instance. Houses and high-rises so near the ocean are easy targets for Atlantic storms. It happened nine weeks ago when a Halloween nor'easter roared ashore, and again over the weekend. There's no telling when nature will reclaim parts of its barrier islands.

Veterans of the resort town say this was Ocean City's worst storm in 30 years. But that is no guarantee all is secure for another three decades: The vagaries of nature defy even the best techniques of modern meteorologists.

This poses a dilemma for state and federal officials as they ponder how to protect these beach communities. Maryland spent $44 million since 1988 pumping more sand onto the beach, creating dunes and building a sea wall along the Boardwalk. All that remains is the sea wall. The rest was sucked out to sea by the storm.

Given the severe fiscal crunch in Annapolis, it will be difficult for the state to undertake a beach restoration program of the same magnitude. But the sand dunes proved their worth, as did the sea wall. Without this protection, there's no telling how bad the damage would have been.

If Maryland is to embark on another dunes-restoration project -- as it should -- it ought to insist on local restrictions to limit the exposure of future building projects along Ocean Highway. They should also see to it that Ocean City and Worcester County share the fiscal burden. They benefit enormously at tax time from the resort's popularity. Now they should help pay the cost of protecting the town from the next nor'easter.

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