OCEAN CITY - Carl Zimmerman remembers walking along the northern tip of Assateague National Seashore wondering how long it might be before the next big storm literally split the barrier island, a wind- swept 37-mile-long sliver of sand and marsh.
But the brutal nor'easters that pounded the island in the winter of 1998 - stubborn squalls that pushed ocean waves into Sinepuxent Bay and brought reporters and politicians scurrying down for a look - sounded an alarm for the government to begin tackling a problem that engineers have warned about for almost 40 years.
Yesterday, Zimmerman, a resource management specialist for the National Park Service here, joined a boatload of dignitaries for an up-close look at the first phase of a 25-year, $50 million effort to preserve the fragile island.
The winter of 1998 "was about as close as Assateague could get to becoming two islands," said Zimmerman, who has spent 10 years here.
Proponents say the long-awaited beach replenishment project will reverse a pattern of man-made erosion that began soon after a devastating hurricane in 1933, when jetties were built to maintain ocean access through the Ocean City inlet, blocking the natural flow of sand and preventing eroded Assateague beaches from being replenished.
Environmentalists have questioned the potential impact of the restoration plan, as well as its steep price tag. But federal officials say the project will cause minimal environmental problems and will stabilize Assateague's northern tip.
"Erosion rates have almost tripled on the northern seven miles," said U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who helped get congressional approval for the project this year, along with a renewed commitment to Ocean City's beach replenishment program.
"The park service has been concerned about erosion for decades," Sarbanes said. "We have people who say we ought to let nature take its course, but this wasn't natural. It is erosion that was manmade, caused by those jetties."
The $13.2 million first phase of the project, which began last month on the beach at Assateague State Park, is expected to be finished by December.
Contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers have begun dredging at Great Gull Bank, a sandy shoal about 4 miles off the coast.
Before the end of the year, 1.8 million cubic yards of that sand will be deposited along a five-mile stretch of beach - deposits 2 1/2 feet to 6 feet deep and up to 100 feet wide. Engineers also will create a 2 1/2 -foot dune to further reduce erosion.
An 11-man crew aboard a 300-foot dredge boat, the R.N. Meeks, maneuvered a pipe yesterday to a pumping station about a half-mile off the Assateague beach, where earth movers spread the slurry of sand and water. Each trip brings about 3,000 cubic yards of sand.
Long-term plans call for twice-a-year dredging of sand that builds up around Ocean City's jetties. The sand will be deposited offshore to allow it to drift onto the beach, duplicating a natural flow that occurred before the jetties were built.
"This is replacing sand that's been lost over the years, over decades," said S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
"We have to live in a man-altered coastal system, and this is one way to go about it," he said.