At Pier Amusements on the beach, a few of the rides are already spinning as construction workers drive pilings and hammer beams to rebuild 100 feet of pier swept away by winter storms.
Across town, employees at Jolly Roger are planting 200 palm trees to replace those that died in the winter storms.
And on the beach itself, Ocean City is gearing up for another sand replenishment program, one much smaller than the massive, three-year, $40-million project that is being credited with saving this ocean resort from an estimated $50 million in real estate damage.
Four months after the last of three storms swept over Ocean City on Jan. 4, the work at two amusement parks and on the beach are the only visible signs that Ocean City rode out a storm powerful enough to devastate the community.
Soon, new palm trees will be flourishing all over the city. The end of Pier Amusements, which extends over the ocean and is probably Ocean City's most vulnerable real estate, will be completed so that fishermen can again cast their lines into the ocean.
The only reminder of the past winter's storms will be the dredges pumping sand onto the beaches as part of a $12-million project expected to start Friday and be completed by July 12.
Visitors who return to a smaller beach and the inconvenience of another dredging project this summer may be critical of the high-priced sand job Ocean City invested time and money in between 1988 and 1991, but its proponents feel the beach replenishment project performed perfectly, saving real estate, a tourist industry and perhaps even some lives.
"What we've done is given Mother Nature a buffer zone," said Nancy Howard, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources. "The sand is expected to wash away."
In fact, the $40-million worth of sand and sea walls was never expected to be the final battle in Ocean City's war with the tides. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which constructed a benefit/cost analysis model for the project and paid for the bulk of the work, had projected that more sand would have to be pumped ashore. However, no one expected such a devastating storm so soon after the project was completed, Ms. Howard acknowledged.
If the grasses planted on the sand dunes had had a few more years to become established, the same storm might have done far less damage, said Ms. Howard. She noted that a
demonstration dune built in 1988 weathered the storm with little damage, while dunes planted in 1991 or still unplanted were washed away.
The sand replenishment project will top $52 million when this summer's work is completed, but Ms. Howard and other proponents say Ocean City more than pays for that cost through the taxes it pays. Its real estate, businesses and wage earners generate more than $85 million per year for state coffers, she said.
"People from all over the state use Ocean City and they don't pay to walk out on the beach," she added.
Probably few visitors who walk out on the beach this summer will realize how close Ocean City came to disaster and how big a role the beach replenishment program had in saving it.
In 1933, a northeaster of the same magnitude as the storm that hit the city Jan. 4 carved a channel between ocean and bay, slicing off Assateague and creating the Ocean City Inlet. In 1962, a storm just a little stronger than last winter's left millions of dollars in real estate damage in its wake.
According to the Corps of Engineers, damage from the storms last October, November and January would have cost $50 million had Ocean City not had its powerful new defense in place.
The combination of sand, grass and steel sea walls built in the last four years to fortify this barrier island against the high tides and pounding seas prevented the boardwalk from being battered apart and boardwalk businesses from suffering severe
"We probably would have lost the entire boardwalk and would have seen extensive damage to most of our oceanfront buildings," said city engineer Terry McGean, who drove up on the boardwalk in the midst of the Jan. 4 storm as waves were breaking over it.
This year's sand project shouldn't inconvenience vacationers for more than three days. Workers will spend that much time working on a three-block area of beach, then move on to the next section, Mr. McGean said.
With three dredges working, the project will begin simultaneously at 10th Street and 120th Street. Crews will work south from both locations. The 10th Street crew will move north ** once they reach the Inlet, where the beach is wide enough that it doesn't need additional sand, Mr. McGean said.
Vacationers can expect the ocean water to be dirtier where the sand is being pumped ashore, but the turbidity should clear up as soon as the crews move on, Mr. McGean said. The new sand may also look darker, but should bleach out to the normal yellow/white color of the beach after a few weeks, he said.
The project involves dredging 1.2 million cubic yards of sand from offshore sandbars, then pumping it ashore to restore the beach to its former configuration and to restore 7 1/2 miles of 16-feet-high sand dunes that protected real estate from 27th Street to the Maryland line at 145th Street.
Between 1988 and 1991, Ocean City's beach replenishment program pumped 3.5 million cubic yards of sand onto nine miles of the 10-mile long barrier island. Engineers estimate that the winter storms carried two million cubic yards of that sand off shore, or almost one-third of the new sand pumped onto the beach.
This year's project, however, won't replace all that sand because most of it -- an estimated 1,370,000 cubic yards -- is slowly being shifted back onto the beach by the natural motion of the ocean waves, Mr. McGean said. Once this natural cycle is complete, engineers believe Ocean City will only really have lost about 640,000 cubic yards, or 18 percent of the new sand in the storms, he said.
North of Ocean City, the smaller resorts of Bethany Beach and Rehoboth suffered far more damage.
While Ocean City has spent only $100,000 repairing roads, picking up debris and moving sand after the storm, Bethany, which lost its bandstand and most of its boardwalk, has already spent $380,000 and Rehoboth has invested $900,000 just replacing its boardwalk, which was almost completely destroyed.