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For O.C., last big weekend's a washout


OCEAN CITY - A pair of storm systems off the Atlantic coast pumped gusty winds and torrents of rain onto the Eastern Shore yesterday and brought a soggy end to one of the driest, hottest tourist seasons on record in Maryland's ocean resort.

For the few who braved 35-mph gusts on the boardwalk, it seemed as if Mother Nature was making up for a summer of near-perfect beach weather - the same parched conditions that devastated farms and prompted water restrictions in many parts of the state - by washing out the traditional final weekend of the summer season with 6 to 10 inches of rain here and more in parts of the Shore.

Public works crews were busy all day, placing temporary barriers on flooded streets as rain backed up in sewers and spilled over curbs all over town.

"The southern end of town is the lowest, so that's always where the problem is," said Clay Stamp, Ocean City's emergency operations director.

He said a high-pressure system off New England and a low-pressure system stalled off Delmarva worked together to push moisture into coastal states.

Flash flood warnings were issued for Worcester County - where the heaviest reported rainfall was 14.31 inches in Snow Hill between 10 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. yesterday - and nearby Sussex County, Del.

In Wicomico County, where minor flooding was reported, the National Weather Service reported nearly 8 inches of rain at Salisbury's airport. But Somerset County just to the south got only a trace.

The storm "produced a huge amount of rain," said forecaster Mike Rusnak of the Wakefield, Va., office of the National Weather Service. "You've got the combination of east winds and the storm wrapping around Salisbury, Worcester and the Delaware coast. We expect it to gradually taper off."

John Peters said he has seldom seen the likes of it in his nine years working in Ocean City, except maybe a couple of times when hurricanes have passed near the resort or winter nor'easters have whipped up the wind and churned the surf.

All day yesterday, Peters and other maintenance workers at Sportland scrambled with push brooms to repel water - more than 6 inches of rain fell from midnight to noon - that crept into one of the boardwalk's largest game arcades.

But with winds blasting into the garage-size doorway, Peters had no better luck than anyone else in keeping water out.

"This should be our last big weekend, but not this time," said Peters, pointing to the arcade's few drenched customers.

Just up the boardwalk, Linda and Mike Harvey got soaked walking from their hotel in a quest for Thrasher's fries. Here from the Pittsburgh area for the fifth year in a row for a Labor Day weekend softball tournament, they planned to hang around despite the weather.

"At least we got to play on Saturday," Mike Harvey said. "Eventually, we're going to wind up sitting somewhere drinking a beer. The room's paid for through Monday, so we're staying."

Many guests bailed out early or never made it to town at all. Vacancy signs were evident along the 10-mile Coastal Highway strip yesterday as people hustled to pack their cars during lulls in the rain.

Pete Jorge of Randolph, N.J., said he'd had enough after a few dreary days spent with his daughter, two stepdaughters and two grandchildren in adjoining rooms at the Sun 'n Fun Motel near 29th Street.

"We had a little fun but not any sun," he said. "It's been a washout on and off since Thursday."

Before the rain, merchants and city officials had reported an above-average season, perhaps better than last year, but nothing to match the banner years of 1999 and 2000.

"I guess you could call it an OK year," said Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. "We had the best Fourth of July we've ever had, then July seemed to go a little soft and August has been good. Our financial success in the fall depends totally on the weather, so we'll see. You've got to make hay while the sun shines."

Joann Violante, who gazed at the rain from her gift shop in the 45th Street Village shopping center, said that if Mathias or anyone else has the formula for what makes a successful season, she'd like to hear it.

"Last year, it rained all through July, it was chilly in August and that got people off the beach to go shopping, so we had a great year," Violante said. "This year, it's been super hot and sunny and we've still seen good crowds. Who can figure it?"

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