OCEAN CITY — — Residents and tourists deserted downtown Ocean City on Sunday afternoon after officials ordered an evacuation of the town's southernmost blocks as Hurricane Sandy began to whip the shores.
But at the Purple Moose Saloon on the Boardwalk, owner Gary Walker was waiting until the very last moment to close up.
With a single customer nursing a beer at around 3 p.m., he wasn't holding out for a surge of business. Rather, Walker said he wasn't impressed by the power Sandy had shown so far.
Despite the evacuation south of 17th Street, he planned to stay near the bar through the storm — or inside it if the storm worsened, on a single mattress made up with clean sheets in the back of the bar, under black lights and a disco ball.
Others appeared to take warnings of an unusually large storm surge more seriously. The rest of the downtown Boardwalk storefronts were shuttered behind steel doors, and motels nearby flashed "no vacancy" signs despite barren parking lots.
The few wet, bundled-up visitors who strolled the beach said they came to see the storm's power in person.
"It's a part of history almost," said Larry Jones of Salisbury, Walker's lone patron, who came to the beach for the day to get a glimpse of Sandy before it's too dangerous to do so. "This may be one of the biggest storms to hit Ocean City in years."
Sandy is expected to dump as much as 9 inches of rain on the lower Eastern Shore, with 6 inches possible in the Baltimore area. The storm is projected to slam head-on into the New Jersey shore Monday evening. With a full moon Monday, storm surges in Ocean City are expected to reach as high as 8 feet.
Wind gusts on Sunday reached 40 mph in the Ocean City inlet, according to a National Weather Service monitoring station, and were expected to pick up overnight and on Monday. A hurricane-force wind warning cautioned of sustained winds of 50 to 60 mph, with gusts reaching as much as 74 mph.
Town officials did not expect to order an evacuation for the rest of Ocean City, but they did ask all visitors to leave by 8 p.m. Sunday. Maryland State Police officers went door to door with town officials in the southern evacuation zone asking residents to leave. The town's full-time population is about 7,000.
About 50 area residents took refuge at a Worcester County shelter set up at Stephen Decatur High School in Berlin, Mayor Rick Meehan said, while about 200 residents of the low-lying downtown area had chosen to stay behind and brave the storm. Most have experienced tropical storms and nor'easters and can remain safe inside their homes, he said.
"We would prefer that they leave, but our next issue to them will be that they stay inside and use common sense," Meehan said.
Most flood areas in Ocean City lie along Assawoman Bay, which was filling up with rainwater held in place by heavy winds, said Joe Theobald, the town's emergency services director. But in the ocean-front high-rises and hotels that remained open, he said, there is less to be concerned about.
"It's going to get really noisy," Theobald said.
While Sandy could be more severe than Hurricane Irene was last year, officials said its arrival after the tourist season simplified the evacuation. When Irene neared Ocean City's beaches last August, Meehan said, there were about 250,000 tourists in town.
That prompted an evacuation of the entire town 24 hours ahead of the storm, he said. This time, officials determined 12 hours would be enough time to send visitors home.
If Sandy's storm surge proves as bad or worse than feared, it could indeed be historic — Walker, the bar owner, said he recalls only once in his 38 years working on the Boardwalk that waves lapped at his door. As with Sandy, it was during the off season, in January 1992, and coincided with abnormally high tides.
But he is keeping his fingers crossed.
"I just can't see the water getting up high enough to do that kind of damage," Walker said, watching the waves crash across the beach. "But I could be wrong."