O.C. beach protection criticized Project said to be unfit for big storm; Army defends its work.


With Ocean City's protective sand dune all but washed away by last weekend's storm, a University of Maryland researcher says he doubts the resort's vaunted $44 million beach replenishment project was all it was cracked up to be.

Stephen P. Leatherman, director of the coastal research laboratory in College Park, said yesterday Ocean City's man-made dune line should have been able to stand up to a much fiercer storm than the northeaster that smacked the Maryland and Delaware shore on Saturday.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which designed and oversaw the rebuilding of Ocean City's beach, has said the project finished last summer was strong enough to withstand a 100-year storm, or one that hits the coast only once every century or so.

But, Leatherman said, last weekend's northeaster was nowhere near the ferocity of a 100-year storm, much less a hurri

cane, though it was "probably the largest storm to come onto that part of the coast in the last 10 or 15 years."

"Was this a good test, or have they sold the state a bill of goods?" he asked, referring to Army engineers. "I've got a feeling they don't have anywhere near 100-year protection out there."

Federal and state officials, who are scrambling to rebuild the dune by next fall, contended yesterday that the beach replenishment project did its job. Ocean City suffered relatively light beachfront property damage, they noted, although a mobile home park near Sinepuxent Bay and houses in the nearby community of Snug Harbor had some heavy damage. The Ocean City impact was in sharp contrast to millions of dollars in repairs needed to boardwalks and summer homes on Delaware's less protected coast.

"The [Ocean City] project performed precisely as we would have expected it to," said Charles M. Hess, the Army's deputy district engineer in Baltimore for project management. Though up to 90 percent of the dune washed away, he said it largely blunted the force of the waves.

"The dune worked beautifully," said Robert Gould, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which has worked with the Army on the project. "This is exactly what should have happened. It wasn't expected that there wouldn't be damage."

Saturday's storm followed two others in October and November, during which the dune line was pummeled but not breached. The stronger of the two northeasters, on Halloween, was estimated by Army officials to be about a 15-year storm.

Those two storms already had nibbled away at the eight-mile dune line before last weekend.

Leatherman acknowledged the earlier storms had weakened the dune but said he suspects that Ocean City's beach was not wide enough to afford protection from 100-year storms. The wider the beach is, the more it can absorb the pounding of wind-tossed waves before they can surge onto the shore.

Saturday's storm was "pretty unusual," Leatherman said. Most northeasters stay offshore as they move up the coast, but this one veered inland and hit the Maryland-Delaware coast just at high tide. While the latest storm had higher wave surge than the Halloween northeaster, he said its offshore swells were not as high as those in October.

In any case, with the dune largely gone now, the resort is vulnerable to even a moderate storm. And northeasters are not uncommon through March.

"We've had two good-sized northeasters, and we're not even halfway through the season," Leatherman said.

He said the state should commission an independent analysis of the effectiveness of Ocean City's beach project. He said he has been unable so far to get the information he needs to do that, and he finds it "damn frustrating."

"There is Maryland money involved in this, and it is Maryland's No. 1 resort area," he said. "We should know what's going on down there."

The researcher, who has clashed in the past with Ocean City officials over previous beach protection efforts, said he supported the resort's efforts to "nourish" the beach with sand.

"What I worry about is who profits and who pays," he said. He said he feared that Ocean City would be unable to count on the federal government to keep paying for rebuilding the beach every time it is washed away.

Army officials say they don't know just how much it will cost to restore the dune, but it cost about $30 million to construct, using 2.3 million cubic yards of sand. Another $14 million was spent vTC pumping 1.4 million cubic yards of sand from offshore to build up the beach.

Federal and state funds financed the project, and plans called for jointly spending $12 million to $13 million every four years or so repairing "normal" erosion.

This storm damage came ahead of schedule. Though Maryland had pledged to maintain and rehabilitate the dune, state officials asked the Army for about $5 million to restore the 500,000 cubic yards of sand lost in the two earlier storms. They now plan to amend that request to seek enough funds to virtually rebuild the dune.

A spokesman for Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., says she plans to press the Army to provide funds to the state to rebuild Ocean City's dune. Though funding is not guaranteed, "the senator is not one to be dissuaded," says John Steele, her spokesman.

Ocean City is likely to get its money, Leatherman says, but with more coastal resorts seeking to restore their retreating beaches, he foresees a time when the federal well may run dry.

"Already we've spent $8 billion in beach nourishment [nationwide] in the last two decades," he said. "It's just becoming a big sink of federal dollars."

Officials involved in the Ocean City beach project insist that it is money well spent. Though no figures are available yet on what it will cost to rebuild the dune, Army officials estimate it spared the resort $30 million to $35 million in property damage during last Halloween's storm alone. The dune prevented untold millions last weekend, they say.

"The project already has paid for itself many, many times over in damage prevented," said the Army's Hess, who noted that Ocean City's real estate has an assessed value of about $1.7 billion.

Leatherman acknowledged that Ocean City's investment should be protected, but he recommended that the risks of damage be reduced by forbidding property owners from rebuilding oceanfront structures destroyed by storms.

"If a 10-year storm can knock out somebody's lights, you've got to realize that it's probably too close [to the ocean]. This is not a hurricane. It's a baby compared to what could happen."

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