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The remnants of Tropical Storm Ida and an early season nor'easter combined to pack a one-two wallop that lashed at Ocean City, along with much of the East Coast, last week. It was a storm of a magnitude that hadn't been seen for more than a decade at the resort town.

Yet on Sunday, as the skies cleared and temperatures rose to a nearly summerlike 70 degrees, the usual Ocean City boardwalk shops and restaurants were open for business as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. That couldn't have happened a generation ago.

The difference is that Mother Nature's fury was unleashed largely on piles of sand instead of hotels, shops and the boardwalk. For 21 years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been pumping offshore sand onto Ocean City's beach, building up dunes like a protective wall running from 27th to 146th streets that kept more valuable property out of harm's way.

The dunes took a big hit, of course. Town officials estimate that up to half of all the sand used to build up the dunes has returned to the Atlantic Ocean. Some stretches of beach are much more narrow, as thundering waves swept big chunks of that sand back to the deep as well.

But Ocean City's $8 billion in private property? The damage - caused mostly by minor flooding from wind-driven high tides creeping up from the bay side - is hardly worth mentioning.

The so-called beach "replenishment" project at Ocean City has drawn its share of critics over the years. Pumping sand and even building sea walls along the boardwalk can seem a bit like tilting at windmills - the shifting sands of a barrier island like Ocean City were never meant to stay in one place for very long.

Like sand castles, the artificial dunes can't last forever - sometimes no more than a few years. Wind and water are simply too powerful a force to expect otherwise. Officials from the Corps of Engineers, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and local government spent much of this week assessing the damage and shoring up plans to pump more sand next spring.

Such temporary protection doesn't come cheap. Taxpayers have invested about $100 million in the project so far, and next year's replenishment efforts could add another $10 million or more to that.

But government engineers estimate that two decades worth of storms would likely have caused nearly $300 million in property damage if the sand and sea walls had not been there to protect Ocean City. That's a 3-to-1 payoff on the investment so far, and that's not even calculating how much the local tourist trade has gained from having a wider, more attractive beach.

Ocean City is simply too important an economic asset to the state to allow it to be swept away without a fight - even if that means pumping offshore sand and replanting man-made dunes every four years.

For the $4 million set aside each year for periodic beach restoration (from federal, state and local resources), Ocean City gets a kind of short-term disaster protection. It's not without sacrifice - dunes are created to be destroyed so that the Dunes Manor Hotel and other Ocean City landmarks aren't - but last week's storm demonstrated that it's a trade-off that works.

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