Ocean City on list of peril

Hurricanes: But emergency services director disputes that the resort city is a candidate for a storm disaster.

April 14, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OCEAN CITY - A flurry of recent news reports pegging Maryland's favorite beach town as one of the nation's four worst potential evacuation disasters has sent the resort's resident hurricane guru into a frenzy of damage control.

Not storm damage, public relations damage.

Clay Stamp, who has spent the past 25 years here as emergency operations director, says it's mostly a big misunderstanding.

No way, no how, is Ocean City in the same league with the other areas named - Tampa Bay, New York and New Orleans - especially for such a dubious distinction, Stamp says.

"I don't know why they picked us," he says. "Why not Miami, why not the Florida Keys or the Outer Banks? Clearly, we're no worse, and probably better, than most other coastal areas."

But other hurricane experts aren't so sure.

All the unwanted attention came from a seminar two weeks ago at the National Hurricane Conference, an annual trek to Florida made by hundreds of weather forecasters, federal, state and local emergency response leaders. Stamp and other Ocean City officials have attended every year since 1987.

The topic for one brainstorming session was "The Four Worst Hurricane Evacuation Disasters in the U.S. Waiting to Happen." Stamp, who was one of the panelists, figured conference organizers added just a tad of hyperbole to generate interest. None of the other areas has much in common with the Delmarva Peninsula, he says.

"I thought it was a free and open discussion of our strengths and weaknesses," says Stamp. "I take this kind of personal. This is what I do for a living."

Having Ocean City listed by the seminar with the other three storm-challenged areas was the last thing he expected.

Consider the other picks. Forecasters and emergency response planners worry about the potential for a huge storm surge that could overwhelm a large share of Tampa Bay's 2.5 million residents, in the event a major storm - something that hasn't happened there since 1921.

New York's evacuation difficulties are obvious - 8 million people. Then there's New Orleans. Most of the city is below sea level.

But while Ocean City might have fewer people to evacuate, it has its own set of problems, says Frank Lapore, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the nation's command center for tracking Atlantic storms.

"Their situation might be different, but it's only a matter of degree," Lapore says. "The issue there is that emergency routes would very quickly be overcome by tourists. It's like a two-lane road out of Dodge."

Ocean City officials estimate that it would take between eight and 14 hours to clear the town of 150,000 to 250,000 tourists during the summer season.

Delaware officials say it would take 10 to 14 hours in Sussex County, where the year-round population of 165,000 swells to 225,000 during the season.

In both cases, emergency officials worry about motorists clogging roads all across the Shore as they make their way back to Baltimore and Washington.

Stamp admits that the town's evacuation plan is 10 years old, which may have flagged Ocean City for scrutiny, but it is being revised this year by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Road improvements such as the Salisbury by-pass now under construction, should also help ease congestion for tourists fleeing an approaching storm, he says.

Meanwhile, the town has formed an alliance, the Delmarva Emergency Task Force, with all nine counties on the Maryland Shore, Delaware's three counties and two Virginia counties at the southern end of the peninsula to coordinate emergency response and share information.

Key personnel in every jurisdiction are linked to a National Weather Service phone line used for conference calls as storms make their way up the coast.

"One of the reasons we formed this group was that we had instances where Ocean City would be under a hurricane warning and, right across the line, Fenwick Island would be under a hurricane watch," says Joe Thomas, emergency response chief in nearby Sussex County, Del.

"Granted, our east-west routes are an issue, but I can't imagine we're among the four worst," he said.

The odds would appear to be in favor of Ocean City, which hasn't seen a devastating hurricane in 75 years, the unnamed storm of 1933 that produced a 7-foot storm surge and formed the Ocean City Inlet.

The last hurricane to cause significant property damage at the resort was Gloria in 1985.

All told, Ocean City has had a close call with Atlantic storms about once every five years.

The luck of geography also seems to help protect Ocean City, says Stamp.

"Cape Hatteras seems to deflect a lot of storms for us," he says. "If you look at the track of most Atlantic storms, they're off our coast by 100 miles. It looks like a hurricane railroad out there."

Colorado State University's hurricane forecasting center expects an above-average hurricane season, predicting 12 named storms, seven of them hurricanes, with seven severe.

"The fact that there is the potential for loss of life doesn't mean there's bad emergency planning, just bad circumstances," says Jay Baker, a University of Florida professor who works as a consultant on evacuation plans.

"The problem there is you may have people still on the road a long ways from where they need to be when a hurricane hits. Even with a good plan, you can think of scenarios that would cause real problems."

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