SOUTH BETHANY BEACH, DELAWARE. — You don't have to be a professional coastal engineer to recognize that this resort community is dangerously exposed to the Atlantic Ocean. The pilings of beach houses foolishly built in front of the dune line stand in deep pools of salt water that linger long after the January 4 storm that struck the Delaware and Maryland shore with devastating impact.
The dunes themselves have vanished along much of the coast within 10 miles of here in either direction, due to the same tempest. That leaves some communities with only a narrow stretch of unstable beach between them and the unruly Atlantic, with more nasty winter storms likely.
The densely developed $2.5 billion beach resort of Ocean City lost approximately 80 percent of its dunes during the storm. Waves barreled through the ground floors of unelevated
oceanfront structures, leaving broken furniture and mildewed destruction in their wake.
In desperation, Ocean City officials hastily had an artificial dune line bulldozed as a substitute for the original sandy barricade (which was supposed to protect against a 100-year storm but disintegrated from a much lesser blow).
These makeshift mounds of sand don't engender much confidence. They are several feet lower than their inadequate predecessors, and have not had time to become anchored to the beach by dune grass. Stephen Leatherman, a University of Maryland professor and beach engineering expert, calls their protection ''illusory. They could never withstand a direct hit by a typical winter storm in these parts.''
Flying over Ocean City's seven-mile beach, one can easily perceive the disaster that awaits the resort community if Mother Nature should decide to kick up her heels again soon. Below are 4.5 square miles of intense urban development crammed into a thin sliver of unstable barrier island with a badly eroded beach incapable of mitigating a storm surge.
Even Ocean City's fathers have conceded that it would probably have been better not to build their town where it stands. But they argue that what is done is done and there now exists a major urban complex. The community produces far more tax revenues than it receives for beach maintenance, they say, and it has grown too large and important to abandon to the sea.
That may be true of the sales-tax revenue generated for the state of Maryland during the three summer months when tourism swells the population from approximately 10,000 to nearly 400,000. But the federal government doesn't begin to recover its contribution to Ocean City's prosperity. Washington foots the lion's share of the beach-replenishment bill -- now projected at $500 million over the next 50 years -- and that's just to maintain a stalemate in a battle that can never be won.
If the federal government picks up the tab, or most of it, for Ocean City's beach restoration, shouldn't it do the same for other coastal communities that take too many liberties with nature? It is reasonable to ask an individual in Butte, Montana, or Memphis, Tennessee, to finance some beach-front communities' indulgent desire to play ''chicken'' with nature?
Of course, Ocean City can't simply pull up stakes overnight and surrender a metropolis to the Atlantic Ocean. But if beach goers want to remain where they have no business being, they alone should bear the cost. Slap a ''sand tax'' on all goods and services offered by the community, in high season or low.
That should buy some time while Congress hopefully passes pending legislation that promotes buffer zones in hazardous coastal areas. The proposed measure, which has already passed the House, would discourage further unwise encroachment by denying cheap federal flood insurance.
It would encourage retreats inland by substantially raising the insurance premiums of those already on the scene who chose recklessly to defy the elements, and by subsidizing relocation or government purchase (with subsequent demolition) of damaged buildings in perilous settings.
Thus the vulnerable portions of the nation's more than 800 waterfront communities identified by the Federal Emergency Management Administration as lethally erosion-prone could be reclaimed by nature and then enjoyed on a new basis by human beings.
Edward Flattau is an environmental writer