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Empty Ocean City 'dodges a bullet'

Streams of people flowed back into Ocean City after the mandatory evacuation order for Hurricane Irene was lifted Sunday, and many of them headed straight for the beach.

"It's bigger, it's better," said Annamarie Rohrer, who was sitting in the sun with her daughter within two hours of the town's reopening. She marveled at how the storm's erosion had widened the beach's usable space.

"I was worried that the hurricane was going to wash it all away," Rohrer said. "But now we're all not sitting on top of one another."

City engineers said the beach suffered little as the storm whipped the coast. The sea swallowed up some of the beach's tan sand, leaving behind patches of black grit. Small hills of sand were also deposited on the boardwalk.

After a night of torrential rain and winds reaching gusts of 80 mph, only minor damage was apparent throughout the town. Sustained winds were as much as 40 mph slower than predicted early Saturday.

By Sunday afternoon, pools were being cleaned, sidewalks were being swept and plywood was being removed from windows.

"I have to say, Ocean City was lucky again," said Todd Ferrante, an Ocean City business owner and resident who described the damage he saw as cosmetic.

He walked the boardwalk, surveying the storm's effects and looking for signs of wear at the Kite Loft, a store owned by a friend. The only damage he had to report was one shingle missing from the roof.

Ocean City residents, business owners and employees were allowed back into the town at 9 a.m. Sunday, Mayor Richard W. Meehan said. Tourists were welcomed back starting at noon, when the town officially reopened.

Meehan was pleased with the result of the mandatory evacuation and deflected criticism that emptying the town was unnecessary. The town's emergency management office expected, and was prepared for, much worse, he said.

"They can second-guess all they want," Meehan said, adding that evacuating the town was the right decision based on the weather predictions before the storm hit.

There were no reported injuries in Ocean City as Hurricane Irene passed through, police said.

About a foot of rain fell on the town, police said, as the eye of the storm passed within 50 miles early Sunday.

The storm caused a surge of water of a little more than 5 feet above normal, but the swell took place at low tide, Meehan said. The flooding in the streets was "typical" of heavy rains, he said, and of the small number of emergency calls that came in during the storm, none went unanswered.

More than 400 people were housed in shelters in Worcester County on Saturday night and about 100 on Friday. There were several dozen pets in the shelters as well, including a ferret and an iguana, officials said.

About 200,000 people were evacuated from the town starting Thursday, when the mayor declared a state of emergency. About 7,500 residents live in the town year-round, and police said very few people stayed behind, reducing the potential for injuries.

"It's kind of foolish to stay behind," said Janice Russell, who was approaching the beach with her husband, Bill, about 3 p.m. Sunday to check its condition. The two are residents of Ocean City and stayed at the Hampton Inn in Salisbury during the storm. "You never know what's going to happen."

The mayor did not have an estimate Sunday of what the recovery and repair efforts would cost, but Meehan said he thought the amount was "not significant." The city's pier and beacon on the inlet sustained damage, but the boardwalk was unharmed.

Meehan also said that he expected Labor Day weekend crowds to be bigger than last year because of getaways that were canceled due to the hurricane.

Although the beach was open Sunday, there were restrictions on going into the surf, which included powerful waves throughout the afternoon, because lifeguards were not on duty.

Even so, the big waves left behind by the storm were too tempting for many. Tommy Simpson and Brian Mike, college students in Salisbury, arrived at the beach as quickly after noon as possible to get in some surf time before classes begin this week.

"I got a text from my boss who said the waves were good, so we came right down," said Simpson, who works for an umbrella business on the beach during the summer. Mike agreed that the post-Irene waves were making up for what has been a poor summer for wave sports.

Ocean City released National Guard units Sunday morning to help in harder-hit areas in Southern Maryland and Baltimore, Police Chief Bernadette DiPino said.

Fewer than 200 customers were still without power in the town by Sunday afternoon, according to Delmarva Power. The public utility, which serves Maryland's Eastern Shore and Delaware, was reporting more than 100,000 customers affected by outages at midday.

Ocean City's wastewater treatment plant reopened Sunday morning after being shut at 6 p.m. the night before to prevent the sewer system from being overwhelmed and damaged by excess rainwater.

Before people were allowed back in town, police cars cruised streets and alleys, looking for damage and potential danger.

Animal-control vehicles and public works trucks also traversed the town, surveying the storm's effects. Officials said they knew of no animals injured by the storm.

A firetruck with about five firefighters was stopping every few blocks along the waterfront to turn off alarms that had gone off during the storm.

An Ocean City Police Department corporal said water in phone lines caused false 911 calls to be registered Saturday night.

More than a half-dozen alarm systems went off at different times throughout the storm at the Stowaway Grand Hotel, at 22nd Street and Baltimore Avenue, said Ray Unger, the hotel's security director.

"We've had nor'easters that have done more damage," said Unger, who lives in Ocean Pines and drove into the resort Sunday morning to check on the empty property.

He was planning to do a walk-through to look for water damage, but not much else in terms of checking the building for problems. "We really dodged a bullet."

Besides the weakened storm, another reason Ocean City may have fared so well are the protections put in place after Hurricane Gloria destroyed the boardwalk in 1985. That prompted more storm safeguards, including building grass-covered sand dunes to protect buildings along the water and installing a sea wall.

The Army Corps of Engineers was given a 50-year authorization starting in 1994 to fortify more than 8 miles of Ocean City's beach to protect people and property, said Col. Dave Anderson, who is based in Baltimore and in charge of the beach project.

Every four years, most recently in 2010, the beach is "renourished," he said.

Last year's beach renovation followed a destructive nor'easter Ida and cost about $6 million, Anderson said. The recent face-lift is a major reason that Ocean City was so resilient during Irene, he said.

Anderson was conducting preliminary assessments of the beach Sunday. The volume and cost of materials necessary to recover from the hurricane will be completed this week, he said.

An earlier version of this story indicated sustained winds in the town were 40 mph during the storm. Sustained winds there were roughly 60 mph during the hurricane, about 40 mph less than forecasters predicted early Saturday. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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