Dennis storm threat eases in Ocean City

Officials relax vigil, assess Labor Day impact

September 02, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY -- After an anxious week of weather watching, merchants and city officials at Maryland's beach resort think they have dodged another Atlantic storm.

Now they are beginning to turn their attention to the bottom line -- how much the gray skies, high winds and pounding surf churned up by wayward Hurricane Dennis will affect the turnout for Labor Day weekend.

Yesterday, as Dennis was downgraded to a tropical storm and meandered south, again threatening the North Carolina coast, Ocean City officials relaxed their vigil. They called off the daily briefings they have held with town, state and federal emergency agencies all week and waited for the next weather service bulletin.

"I don't want to say the worst is over, anything can happen, and we haven't stopped monitoring the storm," said Clay Stamp, Ocean City's emergency services director. "But we have ratcheted down a notch."

The mantra of the day for city officials and business owners is that the weekend forecast looks promising -- windy but mostly fair, with mild temperatures.

"We have been hurt this week, especially those of us in retail," said Jay Knerr, who owns the Kite Loft and heads the Chamber of Commerce. "There's been a noticeable drop in traffic all around town and the foot traffic along the boardwalk has been way off."

And while Labor Day is not the all-out, end-of-summer bash it used to be, Ocean City officials were anxious enough yesterday to move a weekend concert series, which will culminate with a show by the Beach Boys, from an outdoor stage to the Ocean City Convention Center.

City officials said an $8.9 million beach replenishment completed 18 months ago has paid off handsomely preventing storm surge from reaching dunes.

"We had a big, fat beach out there this summer, the widest I've ever seen it," said Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. "When the surf subsides, I'm sure we'll have some loss of sand, but we do have a buffer out there now."

On Assateague National Seashore, officials credit a $1.5 million beach replenishment program with protecting the fragile northern tip of the island that was devastated by a series of violent nor'easters last year.

"We came out in pretty good shape," said park supervisor Marc A. Koenings. "The real hit to the island was down around Chincoteague, but overall the dunes held up really well."

Assateague State Park remained closed yesterday, but the National Seashore was open as normal for a few hardy campers.

Jerry and Ginny Taylor, retirees from Port Charlotte, Fla., were blase about the high winds and surf at their campsite. Secure in a 35-foot camper, they figured to stick out the bad weather and wait for their children and grandchildren who are arriving next week for a family reunion.

"I wouldn't say it was nothing, but I've seen worse," Jerry Taylor said.

Farther north, Delaware officials were unsure whether surging tides that sent water rushing under the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach and produced erosion at other state beaches would return sand as the storm subsides.

"Our whole coast was replenished this year, but we're just going to have to wait and see," said Joe Thomas, emergency services director for Sussex County. "Normally, you'd expect a lot of sand to come back after a storm, but if this one continues to stall and churn things up, you don't know."

As with other recent storms, Dennis was something of a spectacle for Ocean City beach visitors who were barred from entering the surf that came with high tide yesterday.

Buffeted by a steady 25 to 30 mph gale, Gabrielle Graham of Churchton in Anne Arundel County, struggled to hold on to her three young children as the family joined hundreds of others who gathered to witness 8-foot waves at the inlet parking lot.

"We've been here since Sunday, mostly walking the beach, playing on the boardwalk," Graham said. "The kids have had fun even without getting in the water. We've been here lots of times, but we've never seen anything like this. It's really beautiful."

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