OCEAN CITY — Thirty years ago this weekend, Ocean City Councilman Dennis Dare was a young city engineer for the town of Ocean City.
The year was 1985, and Dare and other town officials got word that a Cape Verde-hurricane called Gloria had taken a sharp turn in the Atlantic Ocean and was churning with increasing force toward the East Seaboard.
When the hurricane passed by on Sept, 27, it left behind significant damage including the destruction of the majority of the resort’s famous Boardwalk. Gloria quickly went into the record books as one of Ocean City’s benchmark storms.
I sat down with Dare, who spent eight years as city engineer and 21 years as city manager, to look back on the experience and explore the ways that Gloria changed Ocean City.
Q. Looking back on it, how prepared was Ocean City for a major storm like Gloria?
A. The end of September back in 1985, the town was pretty much emptied out. We didn’t have the post-season tourism that we do today. As far as storm predictability goes, we had it. In 1972, when a hurricane came over top of DC, Congress decided that it was an issue that needed national attention other than just the weather bureau, and the hurricane center was founded.
Their philosophy was: we’ll give you the information and you, the local officials, have to figure out what you are going to do as far as preparedness goes. But, Fish [Powell, former Ocean City Mayor] was an old sea captain and he kind of knew the weather and also knew that when a storm comes up the coast, Cape Hatteras always plays a big role in where the storm is going to go, so he would always call down to the Cape Hatteras coast guard and say, ‘boys, what’s it doing down there?’
So, he would basically make his decision from that call and what the weather bureau said as well.
Q. When the storm came through, the town was evacuated, including you. However, you were one of the first vehicles driving back over the bridge after the storm had passed. Tell me what you saw.
A. There was a philosophy in emergency management at the time that in a disaster you would split your forces because if something happened you still had half of your resources. So we split up and some of the council people and department heads went to the Maryland State Police barracks in Berlin, and we rode the storm out there.
I remember all of a sudden it kind of got light out, and we looked outside and the trees were bending over one way and all of a sudden they bent up straight again, then the winds picked up and the trees bent over the other way. We knew then the storm was passing by.
Afterwards, when the conditions got better, we drove back into town. I remember looking over the driver’s shoulder going over the Route 50 bridge and right at the drawspan, and I see a big deck at the foot of the bridge and I thought, ‘oh, my lord, someone lost their deck,’ then I saw the 4 x 6 creosote stringers and –that’s when you get the sinking feeling in your stomach — that here is a piece of the Boardwalk two blocks from where it’s supposed to be. It was a real disaster area.
Q. Obviously, the main visual when people came back into town was the destroyed Boardwalk, but what were some of the other things with city infrastructure that went along with the cleanup. Try and quantify the other damages?
A. The public lost communications, and public works shut down the wastewater treatment plant and the water system. We weren’t able to turn wells on because some of the wells had been flooded. We had to get the state to do some testing to ensure that the wells hadn’t been contaminated. So that took a few days.
Of course, everyone knows public works was loading up and moving sand and debris and hiring contractors to dispose of it. The State of Maryland sent a lot of state highway equipment in to help us. It was a huge undertaking. Just things like the storm drains. I remember hiring a contractor that brought a dozen of those huge vacuum trucks to suck all the sand out of them so they could function again.
Q. It’s also interesting what was happening in Ocean City at that time because development was occurring along the oceanfront and some historians say the dunes had been depleted, and Ocean City was at a very vulnerable point. Then along came this so called perfect storm. Was our growth making us vulnerable to a storm like Gloria?
A. First of all, when you think of the hurricane in ’33 that created the Inlet, and the Nor’easter in ’62 and then Gloria, those are three signature events. But, none of them would compare to a direct hit on Ocean City. Even at 30 miles out, you are outside of the eye of the storm, and that’s where the storm surge is. I’ve seen Wilmington, N.C., Wrightsville Beach, N.C. after a storm surge hit, and we haven’t seen that. So, these storms are a yardstick, but a direct hit would be so much worse than we’ve seen.
Q. The conversation about beach replenishment started in 1969, but it got fast-tracked after Gloria hit. One of the cause and effects of Hurricane Gloria was the beach replenishment program that we see now that has been credited with saving over a billion dollars’ worth of real estate and property over the years. Tell me about that.
A. The study in 1969 said replenish the beach but the money to do that and the commitment wasn’t there. After Gloria, and I don’t know if this has been done since, we got four levels of government all pulling together. The Army Corps of Engineers and the national government, the state government through DNR, Worcester County and the Town of Ocean City all went in this together because we all had a stake in it. There’s a lot of tax money that comes out of the town, but there’s also a lot of liability when something bad happens. So we formed a 50-year agreement that is still in effect today to replenish the beach.
Q. As you look back on your time and you look back 30 years later on Gloria, just how lucky has Ocean City been and are we more prepared than ever before if we were to take another hit?
A. I think that’s a yes and a no answer. From an infrastructure standpoint, yes; so much of Ocean City has been built since the 80’s and underneath current building code. So our oceanfront is built on a design that is much more than the minimum design from things like FEMA require. Even the balance of the town, like bulkheading and islands are higher than what you’ll find outside of Ocean City in the Delaware bays and places like West Ocean City and Ocean Pines. So from that standpoint, we are in pretty good shape. But again, you get hit by a category 2 or category 3 direct hit here, that’s something else. What bothers me the most about severe storms, and we saw it during Sandy is our evacuation. The foot of the route 50 bridge was flooded and so a lot people couldn’t get in and out of town. Of course, you have the same story going in and out of Delaware, so that leaves you with Route 90. What if Sandy came in August? You think you can evacuate a town on a 2 lane road on route 90, it isn’t going to happen, and 90 has had its issues with serviceability.
So, I think one of the biggest things the town of Ocean City needs to do is build a second span. The state of Maryland built half a highway back in the ‘60’s, well, we’d like to have the other half now.
(To listen to the entire conversation, log on to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts/ and check out the podcast.)