Ocean City's luck can't hold forever Rains off Africa nourish big storms AFTERMATH OF HURRICANE EMILY

September 02, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Ocean City crossed its fingers and Hurricane Emily obliged yesterday, turning right and blowing out to sea after raking North Carolina's Outer Banks.

But the Maryland resort is in no way immune to the sort of storm that turned a section of the town into a 30-foot-deep inlet in a matter of hours back in 1933. If anything, researchers say, the danger is increasing.

"It's not like carsickness, that you outgrow," said Stephen P. Leatherman, director of the University of Maryland's coastal research laboratory. "From what I can tell, we're in for a decade of big hurricanes."

Some meteorologists believe that an East Coast hurricane "drought" during the last 30 years was directly related to a devastating 30-year rain drought in North Africa's Sahel region.

While many hurricanes originate in the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico, those that threaten the Atlantic coast often originate in tropical rain storms off the west coast of Africa.

"Now the good news for Africa is that the rains are back," Dr. Leatherman said. "The flip side for us is that the great Atlantic coast hurricanes are back."

Dr. Robert Sheets, director of the National Hurricane Center, agrees. In a July speech to the National Press Club, he said that scientists believe "we are likely to return, sometime in the near future, to a frequency of hurricanes similar to those experienced in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s."

"Seven major hurricanes struck Florida in the 1950s and residents of the East Coast recall Carol, Hazel, Connie and Ione in the 1950s and Donna of 1960," he said. "If those frequencies of hurricanes return, we will see multi-billion losses . . . almost every year and potential large losses of life because of rapid coastal development during the last 25 years."

Ocean City has boomed in the past three decades without major damage. But Dr. Leatherman believes Hugo, Andrew and Emily are forerunners of the new reality. He compares those who think the worst won't happen here to "a drunk in the middle of the highway who doesn't get hurt."

"The point is, we haven't had a major hurricane in three decades, and . . . less than 20 percent of the people now living on the East Coast have experienced one," he said.

It's easy to see why some younger Marylanders may be blase.

Emily's turn out to sea was reminiscent of several recent hurricanes that threatened Maryland's shores, only to pass by far enough at sea to minimize damage to the beaches.

Hurricane Belle raced up the coast in August 1976 with winds blowing at 110 mph. But it was about 60 miles offshore, and Ocean City got by with a few heavy gusts, some roof damage and minor street flooding.

Hurricane Gloria was tougher in September 1985. It caused damage totaling $12.5 million to beaches and public property. The boardwalk and some streets were torn up.

But that damage was far less than had been feared from Gloria's top winds of 130 mph, which fortunately passed by well out to sea.

Hurricane Charley made a run up the Carolina coast in August 1986, crossing the Outer Banks and passing less than 30 miles off Ocean City. But it sported minimal hurricane winds of 75 mph, and quickly veered to the east. Damage, flooding and beach erosion were minor.

In August 1991, Hurricane Bob blew by, passing 100 miles offshore with winds of 115 mph to 138 mph. On the beach, the tides were only a foot above normal, and winds gusted to no more than 50 mph.

Much more damaging was the so-called "winter hurricane" of Oct. 31, 1991. The huge storm blew in from the northeast and destroyed 90 percent of Ocean City's barrier dunes, tore up the boardwalk and sent sand and saltwater into beachfront buildings, causing property damage totaling in the tens of millions of dollars.

In fact, Dr. Leatherman said, in the last 30 years these winter storms have caused more than three-quarters of Ocean City's beach erosion.

But a Category 3 hurricane like Emily could easily wreak havoc by cruising slowly up the coast, just offshore, driving winds and waves directly on-shore, he said.

With a 10-foot storm surge, "almost all of Ocean City would be under water," he said. "And on top of that would be hurricane-driven waves that would flatten the sand dunes in a VTC couple of hours. Then the waves would be hitting the buildings directly, and that's the scenario for big, big damage."

Taxpayers have spent $44 million in recent years to replenish narrowed beaches to defend the $3 billion in development that ** has sprung up on the island since the 1960s.

"Introducing new sand onto the beach I think is a wise thing, and Ocean City had to do it," Dr. Leatherman said. "Without beach nourishment as a buffer, Ocean City would be standing there with its hands down, saying, 'Kick me.' "

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