Storm does little to resort Ocean City vendors, residents planning for busy weekend

August 29, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Frank D. Roylance and Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

OCEAN CITY -- Hurricane Bonnie ended nearly a week of on-again, off-again flirtation with Maryland's resort city yesterday, providing an impressive but mostly harmless display of waves and wind.

After frustrating forecasters by lingering for days in North Carolina and Virginia, slow-moving Bonnie yesterday was upgraded to hurricane and then downgraded again to a tropical storm as it skipped out into the Atlantic, providing residents and tourists with what one official described as "a very watchable hurricane."

With good weather predicted for Ocean City, merchants and visitors were already looking ahead to a busy end-of-summer weekend. Even before Bonnie's winds subsided, hundreds of polka fans began converging on the city's convention center yesterday for a three-day Polka Beach Party.

"This is going to be a fairly typical weekend," said Donna Abbott, a city spokeswoman. "There are lots of people who want to hear what the weather is going to be like, but once they see the sun, it's busi- ness as usual. It's not hard to sell the beach in summer."

Authorities said heavy surf generated by 35- to 45-mph winds might have produced minor beach erosion, but there were no reports of flooding, nor of significant rainfall. Officials on the Delaware coast said they experienced nearly identical conditions.

Throughout the Lower Shore, officials who had been on alert since early in the week said the storm had surprisingly little impact, while to the south, Virginia Beach, Va. suffered severe damage.

After fading to a tropical storm on Thursday, Bonnie became a hurricane again yesterday, with top sustained winds of 75 mph. The storm faded in the afternoon, as central winds slowed to 70 mph, below the 74 mph threshold for hurricane status.

"This storm has driven us crazy for a week and we didn't even get a decent rain out of it," said Steve Marshall, Somerset County's emergency services manager.

City hotel operators reported a spate of cancellations, and some tourists packed up and left a day early. But many visitors said they were rewarded for sticking it out during a week which afforded at least some beach time every day, including yesterday.

"We got here Tuesday, and we've had a nice time," said DeDee Lewis, of York, Pa., who went strolling the boardwalk early yesterday with her husband Dave and their two daughters, Kiersten and Kasey, before Bonnie's winds became stronger. "You only have one vacation, so you do the best you can."

As the hurricane moved closer -- less than 100 miles offshore -- winds were clocked in gusts of up to 50 mph, driving rain, sand and ocean spray. When high tide approached around noon, police were dispatched to the Ocean City Inlet parking lot to direct traffic as hundreds cruised the area.

With waves crashing over the sea wall and creeping across the beach toward the pavement, tourists and locals alike braced themselves against the stiff winds, positioning for snapshots or home videos of the powerful tidal surge.

Sounding like a native, Stephen Launchi of Eldersburg, a veteran of three summers as a seasonal city police officer, said he has seen worse weather. "I was here for one storm in '96 and I saw a huge chunk of the parking lot -- meters and all -- get washed right over the sea wall."

Across the inlet at Assateague National Seashore, park officials were relieved that even the vulnerable north end of the island, which suffered severe damage during a series of storms last winter, came through relatively unscathed.

The park, along with the adjacent Assateague State Park, will be open today, and could attract a typical summer weekend crowd of 4,000 to 5,000 visitors, said director John Burns.

Among the likely visitors will be surfers drawn to Assateague's waves, said Kathy Phillips, who heads the 6,000-member Eastern Surfing Association, which is based in Ocean City. "From a surfer's point of view, these storms just pump good waves right in here," Phillips said. "Everybody's really thrilled. It's the first real surf of the summer."

Heeding storm warnings, Vince Shell, vacationing in Crisfield, had packed up two days ago, but was rewarded yesterday after deciding to stay. "It's awful pretty out now," he said as he enjoyed the view.

Ocean City officials, relieved that Bonnie passed by, are tracking another hurricane in the tropics, Danielle. With top winds of 90 mph, it was expected to veer east and north and miss the U.S. mainland. But nothing is certain this time of year, said Clay Stamp, emergency services director.

"I tell you the truth, the way this week has gone, there were times when I thought Danielle would get here before Bonnie," Stamp said, half-jokingly.

Scientists who had hoped that hurricane-force winds and torrential rains might yield some new knowledge got mixed results. All vowed to be back to try again during the next big storm.

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