What Did Emily Teach Ocean City?


Practically 60 years to the day that the 1933 storm changed the face of Ocean City, Hurricane Emily threatened to inflict her own fitful surgery on Maryland's seaside resort town this past week.

Unlike the storm of '33, which split Ocean City from Assateague Island, the town got lucky this time. Emily and her 100-mph-plus winds took dead aim at Ocean City from North Carolina's Outer Banks, but instead drifted out to sea.

This was the first hurricane in a long time to threaten the resort during vacation season, when the logistics for an evacuation swell 30- to 60-fold. It is one thing to evacuate the 5,000 people who live in Ocean City during the off-season, quite another to mobilize 150,000 to 300,000 vacationers.

Ocean City officials were pleased with their reaction to last week's storm. After they ordered a voluntary evacuation Tuesday evening and closed the resort's two bridges to incoming traffic, about 75,000 people left town, they estimate. But what of the other 75,000 who stayed behind -- some of whom foolishly thought a Class 3 hurricane would be a great excuse for a party? (The shaken few who waited out Emily on the Outer Banks vowed they would never do so again.) Ocean City set up shelters to accommodate 3,000 people, but clearly that was inadequate.

Had forecasts indicated that Emily was indeed moving toward ** Ocean City, the town would have intensified its directive for people to leave, says Clay Stamp, the local director of emergency management. The mayor could order all businesses closed and the town would have employed a technique that wasn't around in 1933: an audible override of all TV programs to broadcast further instructions to the public.

The director of the Florida-based National Hurricane Center thinks the heavily-populated mid-Atlantic resorts must come up with more definitive shelter plans now that the storm cycle in the Atlantic is on the upswing. After three decades with little East Coast hurricane action -- a result of drought conditions in North Africa during that span -- killer storms such as Hugo, Andrew and Emily are emerging more often.

Although no one thinks highly of the concept of "vertical evacuations" to Ocean City's towering beachfront condos, more facilities on the safer bayside must be arranged.

Getting everyone out of Ocean City is the preferred strategy for a storm that would threaten to wash over the barrier island. But with a storm bearing down, sending motorists to fend for themselves farther inland on a barren, low-lying Eastern Shore is not a solution.

Emily provided Ocean City leaders with a fairly low-cost (coming as it did on the last week of summer), in-season emergency drill. Now they must re-evaluate plans should Emily -- or some nastier kin -- really pay the town a visit.

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