WASHINGTON -- What Mother Nature has taken away, Uncle Sam will probably be putting back.
The federal government will be asked to bear the estimated $10 million to $30 million cost of replacing dunes and sands that kept Saturday's northeaster from thrashing Ocean City's high-rise waterfront, said an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It is "very likely" that top Army officials will approve the plan and repair work could begin as early as April, said Robert W. Lindner, chief of the project development branch with the corps' Baltimore office.
A $45 million, three-year beach replenishment project was all but completed when the storm slammed into the coast. The project, financed with federal, state and local money, constructed dunes and bulkheads and pumped sand along 6 1/2 miles of beach.
But when the storm ended, some 80 percent of the dune was gone. Tests over the next week will determine how much more sand will be needed to replenish the beach. Mr. Lindner said the repair estimates range between $10 million and $30 million.
A 1984 law allows the Army to return such rehabilitation projects to their "pre-storm condition" with the costs picked up by the federal taxpayer. Final approval will come from the Army Corps' Washington headquarters, which will be receiving encouragement from Maryland's elected officials in the coming weeks.
"Once they have the estimates, he'll be in touch with the chief engineer," said a spokesman for Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., whose Democratic colleague, Barbara A. Mikulski, also pledged assistance. "I'm determined to bring all available federal resources Maryland's entitled to to help Ocean City and Assateague recover from the storm," she said.
Last October, a storm hit Ocean City and caused $6 million in damage to the beach replenishment program, said Mr. Lindner. And the following month, another storm slashed the Army's project. Saturday's storm hit before any estimates could be gathered from the November storm.
But some are wondering whether taxpayers should continue to pick up the tab for projects that mount such a losing battle against Mother Nature. Representative Mike Synar, D-Okla., whose subcommittee oversees the corps of engineers, has criticized the erosion of federal funds on beach erosion projects.
Some experts, such as Duke University geologist Orrin H. Pilkey, who studies developed shorelines, suggests that nature be allowed to take its course by pulling the barrier islands closer to the mainland.
Still, Mr. Lindner and local elected officials -- including Ocean City Mayor Roland "Fish" Powell -- argue that $30 million or $45 million is well spent when it means preserving the $3.5 billion resort. Besides offering a retreat to millions of beach goers, it also provides tens of millions of dollars in sales taxes, property taxes and income taxes.
"The state and federal government would lose far more than that in one season," said Mr. Powell. "Anyone who wants to argue it come on down here."
And Mr. Lindner estimates that without the beach replenishment project, the October storm would have created $32 million in damage to the city. "The project is a good investment," he said.
Two things seem certain at Ocean City. The storms will continue and the federal government -- together with local governments -- will pick up after each one. Even after the beach replenishment project is replenished, there will be another 50 years of "periodic nourishment," said Mr. Lindner, costing $426 million and split between federal, state, local and city governments.