ASSATEAGUE ISLAND -- It could happen within a month, a year or a decade.
But however long it takes, a powerful coastal storm is likely to break through the northern end of this popular barrier island and bring havoc to homes and habitat on the Maryland mainland unless Assateague's eroding beach is restored.
That's the conclusion of an unreleased U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that examines water problems in the Ocean City region.
After studying existing and potential trouble spots in a 625-square-mile region stretching from from Delaware to Virginia, the corps put top priority on one area: the northern six miles of Assateague Island, most of which the National Park Service manages.
Once more than a half-mile wide from Sinepuxent Bay on the west to the Atlantic Ocean on the east, that portion of the 50-mile-long island has eroded significantly over the past 60 years. Some parts of the northern end, which still is frequented by the island's famous wild ponies, are less than 1,000 feet across.
Starved of the sand that naturally replenishes most barrier islands by a man-made obstacle, the upper reaches of Assateague -- north of Maryland's Assateague Island State Park -- are especially at risk of washing away.
A copy of the corps report obtained by The Sun says that plans to address the problem range from doing nothing to spending many millions of dollars initially and fewer millions each year afterward.
Doing nothing would be accompanied by hopes that sand renourishment will occur naturally -- or accepting the consequences. The most expensive of several spending approaches would involve a $66 million, one-time restoration effort and be followed with annual repair costs of more than $5 million.
The $66 million estimate would be nearly $4 million more than the amount spent since 1991 to rebuild 8.6 miles of Ocean City beach.
Corps officials and others who participated in the study fear that a storm could easily cut an inlet similar to the one that separated Ocean City and Assateague during the storm of 1933.
"It can happen," said Stacey A. Marek, a corps civil engineer who oversaw the study. "If a real strong northeaster comes through, it could breach. If we had a big storm, it could be devastating."
In recent decades, the Ocean City-Assateague area has experienced more serious damage from strong northeasters -- powerful storms with high winds and wave action that erode beaches and occur several times yearly -- than from hurricanes. The latter usually have stronger winds but hit far less often.
Concern about the future of Assateague is so great that Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who grew up in the Salisbury area, is pushing to have $600,000 earmarked for a fast-track study of remedies. Half of the money would go to the corps and half to the National Park Service, which manages the national seashore.
Meanwhile, corps and park service officials are scheduled to meet in Annapolis with representatives of Ocean City, Worcester County and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources in October to discuss sharing the approximately $5 million cost to further study other regional water problems noted in the inch-thick corps report.
The $549,000 corps "reconnaissance report" on the Ocean City vicinity, which was authorized by Congress in 1991, is the first overview examination of an array of environmental issues facing the region. A similar study of the Baltimore region is under way, Ms. Marek said.
The coastal study looked at how tourism and development affect the area. In addition to Assateague's situation, the report cites potential corps involvement in restoring fish and wildlife habitat, widening and deepening Ocean City navigation channels and finding sources of sand for future needs.
The report's conclusion about Assateague is significant in at least one respect: It is the first time that federal, state and local government agencies agree that human intervention may be necessary to save upper Assateague.
Historically, government bureaucrats often disagreed about what, if anything, should be done to affect erosion and other natural geographical changes barrier islands undergo.
Corps officials argue that a remedy is needed to protect %J navigation channels, wildlife habitat and water quality from changes certain to occur if the mainland is no longer buffered from the Atlantic by the island.
Park service officials, who usually adhere to a let-nature-be philosophy of managing the islands, say Assateague's problems result from human interference 50 years ago.
Ocean City officials want Assateague strengthened to prevent another inlet from opening. A second inlet so close to the inlet at the south end of Ocean City, which sport and commercial boaters use to go between the ocean and Isle of Wight Bay, would reduce water depths, said Dennis Dare, the town's manager.
"If another inlet is cut there, it would play havoc with existing channels in Ocean City," Mr. Dare said. "It would be an emergency."
A natural opening
The River and Harbor Act of 1927 authorized construction of an inlet between the Atlantic Ocean and Sinepuxent Bay about 5 miles south of Ocean City. But the August 1933 storm created a natural opening at the south end of the resort. Maintained and protected by jetties, the opening separates what is now Assateague and Ocean City.
The major culprit in Assateague's problem, the report points out, is the pair of stone jetties completed by the corps in 1935 at the urging of local officials. The huge jetties, particularly the southernmost one, have stopped the natural flow of ocean-borne sand from periodically replenishing the beach immediately south Assateague.
The 1933 inlet probably would have closed had humans not intervened. And because humans tinkered with nature, they have the responsibility to provide a remedy, said Carl Zimmerman, a park service naturalist on Assateague.
"We're trying to mitigate or rectify the ongoing and historical impact of that jetty," Mr. Zimmerman said. "The system's not functioning properly. There's never going to be a natural system unless somebody wants to get rid of the jetty. And that's not going to happen."
Ebb shoal forming
Not everyone agrees that intervention is necessary to save upper Assateague. The corps study cites 1993 research of the area off the northern tip of the island that showed evidence of formation of an ebb shoal, or off-shore sandbar. If the shoal continues to build, it could help protect the northern three miles of Assateague from an accelerated rate of erosion.
Before the 1933 storm, northern Assateague's shoreline retreated -- through erosion and rollover -- at an average rate of less than 10 feet a year, according to the park service. Afterward, the rate nearly tripled.
Although corps engineers are not sure what the ebb shoal can do for the beach, environmental groups want to give it a chance.
"Our group feels that we'd rather go with a natural process," said Ilia J. Fehrer, head of the Worcester Environmental Trust. "It seems that nature is kind of coming to the rescue."
Corps officials insist that no decision has been made on what to do or not to do.
"There's always a no-action plan," Ms. Marek said. "Sometimes the no-action plan is best."
Water in basements
But for homeowners like Raymond W. Hallman, the answer is simple.
When he and his wife had their retirement house built in 1967 on a 100-by-100-foot lot at water's edge in Snug Harbor, a small development on Sinepuxent Bay, the northern end of Assateague had dunes, grass and small bushes.
But when he looks east these days, he can see more than the sands of Assateague. The dark blue line on the horizon is the Atlantic Ocean.
"When the wind's blowing enough to make waves, you can see the breakers," he said. "You couldn't before."
No stranger to coastal storms, Mr. Hallman was in Ocean City in 1933 when the northeaster carved the inlet at the edge of the tiny resort. He also was present for the infamous March 1962 storm, one of the biggest storms to hit Ocean City in the past half-century.
But the storm that most impressed the 84-year-old Delaware native occurred in January 1992. With little warning, a northeaster hit the Maryland shore with such force that when he and his wife, Vera, looked outside a second-story window that morning, they saw their two cars floating out of the garage.
"That was the turning point. Ever since then, we've had water in the first floor when there's a storm," Mr. Hallman said.
"Everybody was driving a new car that year," said Ed Haney, president of the Snug Harbor Civic Association and one of the community's year-around residents.
But critics of costly beach replenishment projects argue that people who built homes in places like Snug Harbor should not expect public bail-outs when their property is at risk.
"It's insane for people to try to develop there," said Judy Johnson, head of the Committee to Preserve Assateague. "It doesn't make sense for all the people to pay for their folly. Man can't make amends, and nature is going to win out."