After Des Moines, Ocean City?

July 16, 1993

If you think those aerial photographs of Des Moines under water were scary and heart-rending, wait till you see Ocean City under water.

Coastal engineers, planners, environmentalists, insurers predict that if a major hurricane hits Maryland's beach resort head on, damage will be enormous. Hurricane experts believe a new cycle of heavy activity began last year and will last for perhaps 25 seasons. The odds are pretty good -- or bad -- that a hurricane will hit Middle Atlantic resort areas at least once in that cycle.

Maryland officials have been improving their chances of limiting damage year by year recently. But even a moderate hurricane could do as much damage to Ocean City as this season's river flooding did to Des Moines. As for a severe hurricane -- last week a coastal engineering consultant, after looking at emergency plans in the Maryland-Delaware area, said, "I don't think anyone is prepared for an Andrew-type event."

Hurricane Andrew did far more dollar damage in South Florida alone last year than floods have done in all the Midwest this month. If Andrew hit Ocean City, it is anybody's guess how much of its $3.6 billion in property value would be wiped out. Everybody would guess "a lot," you can be sure. An Andrew in Ocean City could produce a tidal wave 16 feet high, and unlike a river flood event, the water would not so much rise as surge, with destructive force. Also, the Ocean City building code requires structures to withstand winds of 90 miles per hour; Andrew's blew at 150 mph.

If (when?) Ocean City is hit by such a storm, there will be national sympathy, just as there is now for Des Moines and other flooded river cities. And then there will come the inevitable reaction when federal taxpayers get the bill: Why should we pay for those who built -- and in many cases re-built -- in clearly dangerous areas?

It is a good question. People who choose to live at oceanside -- or riverside -- should protect themselves at their own expense. The best way to do that is with a legitimate flood insurance program. The present federal National Flood Insurance Program is not legitimate. The biggest flaw is that it does not charge premiums that come anywhere close to meeting liabilities. Thus, taxpayers end up paying for losses with appropriated funds for claims when the NFIP is in deficit, as now. Cheap, subsidized flood insurance is probably responsible for more development in inappropriately dangerous areas than anything else.

There is legislation before Congress now to change the NFIP, principally by charging realistic premiums and limiting future unwise development. It should become law.

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