As storm looms, Ocean City shuts most of Sunfest

Sun Staff

Ocean City - As visitors strolled the boardwalk on a perfect September day, the mayor reluctantly moved to discourage others from coming until after Hurricane Isabel has gone.

Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. canceled a huge craft show and most other activities that had been planned for Sunfest, an annual four-day event that usually draws tens of thousands of people. Merchants had hoped it would provide a boost in sales after a lackluster summer season.

"We just didn't want to be sitting with 125,000 people here who would typically arrive by Thursday," Mathias said. "We've earned a reputation for public safety. When everybody - the weather service, the National Hurricane Center - says, 'Take this storm seriously,' we take it seriously."

Though the weather forecasts were less ominous, the National Weather Service warned of possible winds of 75 mph and a surge of tidal flooding along the sandy 10-mile-long resort.

So work crews scrambled all day, hauling down huge white tents that covered the inlet parking lot, a Sunfest tent city that was supposed to cover hundreds of crafts people, vendors and food service workers.

"We're talking about $350,000 worth of tents, and 70 to 80 mph winds is about the max they could handle," said Chris Curro, who runs Party Perfect, a Glen Burnie company that has worked three of the fall festivals without a hitch. "We'll work through [the night], and we should be able to get everything out before the storm hits. It took four days to put them up."

The musical entertainment for Sunfest, including a performance by headliner David Cassidy, will still be held, but indoors at the Roland E. Powell Convention Center. The hope now, Mathias said, is that Isabel will clear out quickly and that crowds will head down to the beach for the weekend.

"Our population is thin right now, maybe 25,000 to 40,000 people," Mathias said. "But if [the storm] moves on in a hurry, people could be back by Friday night."

For Steve and Colleen Gogos and their sons, Michael, 4, and Brian, 4 months, yesterday's sun and blue sky looked inviting until a knock at the door from a carpentry crew hired to board up the windows of their rented condominium.

"We'll play it by ear as to whether we leave [today] or Thursday," said Steve Gogos. "We're from Long Island, so we're wondering if we might see this storm when we get home. It gives us one more reason to keep tabs on the weather."

Charles and Thelma Diehl and Bob and Betty Davis, retirees who arrived in town on a four-day bus tour from Bedford, Pa., were wondering the same thing - whether the storm might follow them north toward Pittsburgh after they leave tomorrow morning.

"Maybe everybody will want to leave a little early," said Charles Diehl. "I think we might like to get home and make sure everything is OK there, especially if there's going to be a lot of rain."

At the south end of the boardwalk, workers for Trimper Amusements were disassembling small, portable rides, packing them in tractor-trailers for safe storage across the U.S. 50 bridge. The towering Tidal Wave roller coaster, like its rival on the Ocean City Fishing Pier, will stand tall, relying on large steel bolts fastened in concrete pillars to withstand the wind.

On the boardwalk, Keith Melvin is counting on the folding metal door in front of the Dough Roller pizza place he has managed for nearly 25 years. If that doesn't work, maybe he'll stack a few sandbags.

"We're going to be safe about this, so maybe we'll close [tomorrow]," Melvin said. "After that, maybe we can salvage a little business on the weekend."

Owen Smith and Michael Matsko, who work as summer lifeguards at a private beach in Delaware, couldn't have been happier yesterday about the "double overhead" waves that, courtesy of Isabel, drew them and two dozen other surfers to the water off the inlet beach.

"These are easily 8-foot waves," said Smith, a surfer since 1967 who lives nearby in Bethany Beach and has no plans to leave. "From the size of the waves, there's got to be some serious energy out in that ocean. It's stellar."

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