The Army Engineers Try Securing A Beachhead

Perched on a strip of sand less than a mile off the Maryland coast, Ocean City has seen its share of storms. So much beach disappeared during a three-day nor'easter in 1962 that a few homes were stranded offshore on their stilts; many more were flattened. A 1933 hurricane had already carved out an inlet to split off the city from Assateague Island. "The bay just overflowed," says Roland E. "Fish" Powell, 62, who was there for both storms and is now Ocean City's mayor.

These days, his 8,000 constituents feel a bit more secure. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the final stage of a $45 million project to restore the beach. Around the clock, a dredge plows up the sea bottom about three miles offshore, piping sand to the resort's 8 1/2-mile beach. Then, tractors shove it into dunes or smooth it out toward the water. Out in the surf, surveyors guide the work atop a fat-tired, 29-foot-high tripod known as The Crab. Strange enough during the day, the scene under floodlights is the stuff of a Steven Spielberg movie.

As novel as such a sight might be to vacationers, it's hardly news that the East Coast is eroding--90% of the shoreline, by some counts. Nor is it lost on many that long stretches of the coast have been overdeveloped, with the phalanxes of high-rise condos every year growing closer and closer together.

In Ocean City, however, not only do these two trends collide but there's also the complication of intense political pressure: The resort draws thousands of visitors from nearby Washington, D. C. Together with local interests, they're pressing the engineers to do what old King Canute couldn't, and fend off the ocean--even though past meddling likely accelerated erosion of neighboring Assateague.

Alas for Assateague, a state and national park, its chief residents are wild ponies, not Beltway fat cats. At the start of each summer, many ponies are removed to the mainland to thin the herd. At the same time, Ocean City's moneyed elite makes its annual migration to $140,000 condos that fill about 20 towers on "high-rise row." Its developers included Bobby Baker, the Johnson Administration's infamous fixer. Among the owners are former Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who was once Maryland's governor, and current Governor William Donald Schaefer. When it comes to using army engineers to widen this particular beach, the fact that powerful Washington politicians and bureaucrats also use Ocean City as a watering spot "doesn't hurt," observes Mayor Powell.

On Capitol Hill, two Marylanders, Steny H. Hoyer and Barbara A. Mikulski, sit on the respective appropriations committees in the House and Senate. They overcame the likes of Michael L. Synar, a fellow Democrat who hails from beachless Oklahoma and chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the corps. "If you look at who promoted the project--the businesses in Ocean City and Governor Schaefer, who is known as Mr. Tourism--I don't think you have to ask any further about the project's underlying purposes," Synar says. "I didn't have the civil defense experts coming here and asking to build this thing."

Some locals doubt whether the barrier island should have been developed in the first place. Much of the $2.5 billion worth of beachfront building "was absolutely insane," contends Judy C. Johnson, president of the Committee to Preserve Assateague Island. As recently as 1987, waves lapped at the footings of one high-rise, baring its foundations.

RISING SEAS. But it's not just a matter of protecting the investments of the rich. Ocean City is no East Hampton. Its boardwalk on summer weekends attracts 250,000 vacationers from as far away as the Midwest, sporting T-shirts with such mottoes as "It's Not a Bald Spot, It's a Solar Panel for a Sex Machine." Even New Jerseyans leave their vaunted shore for Ocean City's wide and well-groomed sands. "Beautiful texture," notes beach connoisseur Robert J. Crowley, a teacher from Hamilton, N. J.

Sadly, the odds are that the ocean will reclaim all that sand, even with the millions budgeted for replenishing it (table). Ever since records have been kept, erosion on the coastline has been unrelenting, driven by normal currents and periodically accelerated by the big storms. Newer data indicate seas worldwide are slowly rising, possibly because of global warming. Every year, about four feet of the typical Atlantic beach slips away. "Mother Nature is going to win everywhere, eventually," admits Nancy L. Howard, the state's on-site administrator of the Ocean City work.

But the storm-savvy folks in Ocean City are willing to take their chances. (And why shouldn't they? They foot little of the bill. The feds have paid nearly half so far, and the state has paid most of the rest.) A boardwalk museum is filled with pictures of shipwrecks and surf rescues by local Coast Guard crews. Here, the 1933 hurricane is described as a "godsend." After all, the curators reason, without the inlet that it savagely opened, fishermen wouldn't have found it so easy to get to Ocean City.

The next really nasty storm--the kind that comes along about every 100 years--could undo nearly all the project's work, the army engineers say. Fish Powell, a self-described "waterman" who was once a professional fisherman and guide, agrees: "We could have another storm tomorrow that would take the whole thing."

LAND HO! Even without storms, barrier islands tend to creep inland by sinking on the seaward side and rising on the bay side. Since the 1930s, Assateague has moved landward some 330 feet, possibly helped by an Ocean City jetty that, like all East Coast jetties, diverts sand bound for beaches to its south to build up beaches to its north. Lately, the northern tip of Assateague has been eroding as much as 35 feet a year, leaving Ocean City further exposed to the sea. The town "will be increasingly more vulnerable" to storms from the south, says Orrin H. Pilkey, a geologist who directs Duke University's study of developed shorelines.

Some states, notably South Carolina, which was ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, are heeding the advice of experts such as Pilkey and increasingly letting nature take its course. They're barring development too close to the water and doing without such dubious safeguards as seawalls. Nationally, proposed changes in the federal flood-insurance program would encourage owners to move vulnerable buildings inland.

Still, efforts to turn back the ocean are continuing: Next spring, for instance, the Corps of Engineers will begin a $100 million-plus beach replenishment program along a 30-mile stretch of the Jersey shore--the legacy of the late James J. Howard, the shore congressman who chaired the House Committee on Public Works & Transportation. For now, though, nobody can kick sand in Ocean City's face: It boasts the best beach taxpayers can buy.

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