Reborn in a hurricane

They didn't name hurricanes back then, but 70 years later, old-timers who remember and merchants who can only imagine it say the Great Storm of 1933 that lashed the Atlantic coast and roared up the Chesapeake Bay was the best thing that ever happened to Maryland's only beach resort.

Described in the American Meteorological Society's August 1933 weather review as "one of the most severe storms that has ever visited the Middle Atlantic Coast," the slow-moving weather mass dumped 10 inches of rain a day for nearly a week, even before wind gusts as high as 80 mph and a 7-foot tide arrived.On the morning of Aug. 23, Ocean City residents awoke to discover that the record tide and rainfall that flooded coastal bays had combined with the storm's winds to cut a 50-foot gash through the island's lowest point, severing the resort from Assateague Island and creating a direct link to the ocean for boats docked in the inland bays.

Before the storm, fishermen had to drag their boats across the beach and through the surf to reach the open ocean.

"People here felt like God had given them a gift," says Suzanne Hurley, curator of the city's maritime museum. Marinas soon popped up along the city's bayside, spawning a new sportfishing industry.

"The inlet changed our whole way of living, our whole way of thinking. Less than a year later, the first white marlin was caught. That changed the focus from commercial fishing to sport fishing, which is when Ocean City really took off," she said.

The storm wrecked a mile-long section of the boardwalk, which at the time was elevated, as were most of the wood-frame buildings in town.

There were no fatalities in Ocean City, but the new inlet ripped apart one building that housed a variety of carnival rides owned by Trimper Amusements, the family that still owns a three-block operation at the end of the boardwalk.

At 75, Granville Trimper, who heads the 113-year-old company that was founded by his grandfather, still has vivid memories of the shattered building.

Stronger still are Trimper's memories of his father loading him and his mother into a truck as waves crashed over the bridge to the mainland.

He can still recall his two pet roosters, which somehow found a safe place to perch during the hurricane, emerging in sunshine as the family came back to survey the damage.

"It was our building and property that were there where the inlet is now, washed out to sea somewhere," says Trimper. "But I guess you could say that after the storm, Ocean City really blossomed like it never had before."

In fact, Ocean City business leaders had been lobbying for years for state and federal money to create an inlet.

It would give the state's mainland its only direct access to the Atlantic, they argued, and transform the resort, which by the mid-1930s reached only to 15th Street and was home to about 1,000 year-round residents.

Within two years of the storm, workmen completed jetties that have kept the inlet open ever since - a project that widened Ocean City's beach by blocking sand that would have drifted south to the beaches of what is now Assateague Island National Seashore.

Disruption of the natural flow of sand was demonstrated by back-to-back nor'easters in 1998 that breached the northern end of Assateague, threatening to create a new inlet and prompting federal officials to begin a 30-year beach replenishment program within sight of the inlet.

Scientists and archivists at the National Hurricane Center in Florida say the 1933 storm surged up from the south and veered off the coast somewhere between Virginia Beach and North Carolina's Outer Banks, then tracked northwest up the Chesapeake.

"I don't think the storm even makes our top 30 of storms on the East Coast," says Frank Lepore, the hurricane center's spokesman.

"It might have been hurricane strength over the Outer Banks, then it sliced up over Washington. The strong side of that storm was over the Chesapeake Bay. The worst of it would have been Aug. 23."

No one needs remind 83-year-old Pauline "Polly" Foxwell Robbins or anyone else who lived in low-lying rural communities along the bay that were inundated with flood waters and cut off from the rest of the world when rails, roads, telephone and telegraph communications were cut.

Robbins recalls wondering whether the second floor of her family's Dorchester County farmhouse was going to be high enough to save them from the surging water.

"I was in my early teens, and it was a scary time," says Robbins. "I remember I had just gotten a new dress, and I was really worried we'd all get washed out to sea with me never getting to wear that new dress."

For the most part, Ocean City has been lucky, says Clay Stamp, dodging six storms in the last 100 years or so that have come within 75 miles of the resort.

But after serving 27 years as the resort's emergency management chief, Stamp has a clear idea of how much of a pounding the 10-mile strip of sand could take.

The worst storm in Ocean City's history, Stamp says, was the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, a powerful nor'easter that caused severe flooding.

The worst recent hurricane was Gloria, which prompted the evacuation of about 50,000 people in 1985.

The town could survive a Category 1 (sustained winds of 74 mph to 95 mph) or even a Category 2 (winds of 96 mph to 110 mph), Stamp says. Anything stronger, and it would be inundated.

The key for timely evacuation, Stamp says, is the advance warning provided by elaborate technology employed by the National Weather Service.

"The only way you can deal with a significant hurricane is to get people out of its way," says Stamp.

"If we ever get a slow-moving storm like in 1933, it's going to cause severe damage. People have to realize that this is a barrier island. The Ocean City we know today was born from the effects of a hurricane."