Upon Further Review: Gloria ‘Was A Big Wake-Up Call For Everyone’

Upon Further Review: Gloria ‘Was A Big Wake-Up Call For Everyone’
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might be best remembered as the storm that famously destroyed Ocean City’s Boardwalk 30 years ago this weekend, but can Gloria also be remembered as the storm that helped make Ocean City stronger?

If you ask many of the officials who were involved with the repairing the millions of dollars in damages Gloria left behind, they’ll say yes.

Bracing For Major Storm

At 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 26, 1985, just one day before Gloria, the largest hurricane to threaten the Eastern Seaboard in 12 years at that time, would pass by Ocean City’s coastline, Ocean City Mayor Roland “Fish” Powell enacted a city-wide evacuation.

“It’s a bad one”, Powell told The Dispatch in 1985.

Ocean City evacuated an estimated 50,000 people that day, and as Powell remembers it today, he feared it was going to be a big problem for the town.

“Growing up here, you go through a number of big storms, and it becomes just another part of your life here, but we realized that this one was different early on.” said Powell.

City officials and department heads went door to door to ensure that people realized the instructions to get out of town.  Then City Engineer Dennis Dare, who would become city manager for 21 years before being elected to the council, remembers how archaic the effort seems now in hindsight.

“One of the lessons we learned from Gloria is that our radio system used by all the city departments couldn’t interact with one another,” said Dare. “You could talk to people in your own department, but not know what was going on with the other departments.  In an emergency situation, that’s a big deal.”

As a result, the Town of Ocean City improved its radio technology to an 800 MHz system so with the simple switch of a dial or channel, the town departments could interact, which Dare and Powell agree led to increased efficiency during emergency situations in the town.

‘The Tipping Point’

Thirty years later, Powell still sings the praises of the town wide effort and the significant assist from the State of Maryland as the main reasons the town bounced back so quickly from such a big storm.

“I remember talking to one of the guys from the State Highway department the day after the storm and he said, ‘it looks like you guys need a lot of help, and I promise you are going to get it,’” remembers Powell, “and wouldn’t you know it, they sent almost every piece of heavy equipment to town to help us clean up and rebuild.”

But during that rebuilding process, the city made some key moves that, in hindsight, have made a big impact.

Current City Engineer Terry McGean didn’t start with the Town of Ocean City until 1990, but he was an integral part of the design and construction of the Public Safety Building on 65th Street, which also serves as the city’s EOC (Emergency Operations Center) during major storm events.

“One of the goals post-Gloria was to make sure the city could remain operational during a major storm instead of having to move all our figureheads and first responders off the island,” said McGean, “so when we built the Public Safety Building, at the time, it was a state-of-the-art hurricane resistant project able to withstand a category 4 hurricane.  It was really far ahead of its time, but now, of course, buildings like that are the norm.”

The building featured hurricane glazing on the roof, top of the line protective windows, a 10,000 gallon underground fuel tank for both heat and generator power and notably moved the main infrastructure of the building, like the HVAC and generator, to higher ground.

“Our EOC is on the second and third floor, so if we did get a direct hit and the building took on water on the first floor, we could remain operational,
added Dare.

McGean and Dare both agree that Gloria also fast-tracked certain things when it came to building codes and other vital city infrastructure components.

“Gloria was definitely the tipping point,” said McGean, “I think if you look at how we are set up now, and how strong we built up our infrastructure, the other storms we’ve had since Gloria have made very little impact on us.”

Build Up The Beach

Perhaps the biggest impact of Hurricane Gloria was the storm proved to be the conduit to sway a longstanding conversation in regards to the merits of beach replenishment into a reality.

“We knew we had to do something more than what we were doing because we were growing so fast,” said McGean. “No one wants multi-million dollar condominiums falling into the ocean because of a hurricane.”

The beach replenishment project created a natural wall of protective sand for the resort’s 10 mile coastline, and it’s been credited with preserving over a billion dollars in storm related damages since its inception.

In addition, the new Boardwalk design including a protective four-foot sea wall that McGean credits with protecting the city’s second most prized tourist attraction — the Boardwalk — even further.

“If you look around, you can see things in our infrastructure and the way we operate now that Gloria certainly played a big part in,” said McGean. “It was a big wake-up call for everyone.”

Former Ocean City Mayor Fish Powell agrees.

“In hindsight, I think the 1933 storm that carved the Inlet helped turn Ocean City from a small fishing village into the makings of a major resort, and I think Gloria helped us get stronger in regards to our infrastructure and our building codes, which helped our town get bigger and stronger as a community,” Powell said.

But even 30 years later, Powell says he still remembers the powerful sounds of Gloria’s howling winds, the charging waters that rushed onshore and the devastation it left in its wake.

“We’ve been very lucky through the years,” said Powell. “I hope we can stay as lucky as we’ve been.”

About The Author: Bryan Russo

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Bryan Russo returned to The Dispatch in 2015 to serve as News Editor after working as a staff writer from 2007-2010 covering the Ocean City news beat. In between, Russo worked as the Coastal Reporter for NPR-member station WAMU 88.5FM in Washington DC and WRAU 88.3 FM on the Delmarva Peninsula. He was the host of a weekly multi-award winning public affairs show “Coastal Connection.” During his five years in public radio, Russo’s work won 19 Associated Press Awards and 2 Edward R. Murrow Awards and was heard on various national programs like NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, APM’s Marketplace and the BBC. Russo also worked for the Associated Press (Philadelphia Bureau) covering the NHL and the NBA and is a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and composer.