OCEAN CITY – While the unsanctioned pop-up motor vehicle event that has plagued the resort in recent years moved to Wildwood, N.J., last weekend with tragic results, it was comparatively calm in Ocean City judging by arrest statistics.
By way of background, years ago an unsanctioned, but welcomed H2O International, or H2Oi, visited the resort area and was generally well organized and its participants behaved. Over the years, however, the unsanctioned pop-up event grew with a less law-abiding and more raucous crowd of hangers-on, creating mayhem on the streets of the resort during the last weekend of September.
The named H2Oi event a few years ago moved away from the Ocean City area, but the hangers-on who caused the most trouble in the resort continued to come that weekend anyway and their numbers continued to grow to the point town officials, the resort’s police department and its allied law enforcement partners began taking gradual, but drastic steps to curb the lawless associated with the event.
The first significant step was the creation of a special event zone in the resort during the troublesome car event, a measure that was approved by the state legislature. The special event zone, similar to a highway construction zone, includes stiff penalties for traffic violations, reduced speed limits, traffic pattern alterations and other measures.
Town officials and their representatives in Annapolis later went back to the General Assembly seeking approval of a bill that would add the charge of “exhibition driving” to the original legislation. Other measures taken in Ocean City included a strong police presence during the unsanctioned and social media-driven event, including support from the Maryland State Police, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and other allied law enforcement agencies.
The results appear to be achieving the desired results. Last year was considerably quieter during the unsanctioned pop-up car rally statistically compared to 2020, when the event reached its crescendo at least locally. This year, there was little to no social media buzz prior to what has been the pop-up car rally weekend, but the town and its partners took all of the appropriate steps last week including the implementation of the special event zone, not just in Ocean City but throughout Worcester County, and the strong police presence from the Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) and the allied law enforcement agencies.
As a result, a look at the preliminary arrest statistics reveals a continued declining trend. For example, in 2017, there were 78 total arrests made during the pop-up car rally weekend, and 79 made during the event in 2018. In 2019, the total number of arrests during the pop-up rally weekend increased to 121. In 2020, perhaps the most troublesome pop-up car rally weekend, the number of arrests spiked to 277.
With enhanced measures in place, including the special event zone and all that entails, along with the strong law enforcement presence and an enhanced towing ordinance including significantly increased fees for removing a vehicle from the town’s impound lot, the number of arrests during the pop-up rally dropped back down to 134 in 2021. According to the OCPD, last week and through the weekend during the anticipated pop-up rally, just 41 arrests were made. There were a few significant incidents, but a large number of the arrests made last week were comparatively insignificant.
The special event zone was in place in Ocean City from last Tuesday through Sunday, and while all of the arrests were not related to lingering pop-up rally enthusiasts who did not make the trip to Wildwood, N.J., and the Jersey Shore, the unsanctioned event’s new home, there was minor evidence of the same types of behavior associated with the event.
Despite the relative calm in the lead up to the annual event, resort officials and their partners took all of the usual precautions in an attempt to “not let their guard down,” and it achieved the desired results, according to OCPD Deputy Communications Manager Ashley Miller.
“The pop-up rally event is a social media event that does not have an official promoter to work with,” she said in a release on Monday. “Social media-driven events could change at a moment’s notice and the attendance is unpredictable. While the event did not take place in Ocean City this year, we took every precaution to be prepared as we have in years’ past.”
Miller said later on Monday not all of the 41 arrests during the duration of the special event zone last week and through the weekend were specifically related to the event. She said advanced preparation helped keep the numbers down in general.
“We were out in full force with the anticipation of having some pop-up rally participants,” she said. “While we really did not see any of the participants, our officers were proactive in handling calls for service and traffic stops.”
OCPD Chief Ross Buzzuro reiterated Miller’s assertion the town was prepared for the worst and continued its operations as if the pop-up event was still coming in full force.
“While the pop-up rally event did not take place in Ocean City this year, we took every precaution as in years past,” he said. “Our main focus was ensuring the safety of the residents and visitors in the town of Ocean City. We went into this event cautiously optimistic, and our law enforcement stayed proactive with their enforcement even when we saw that it was shaping up to be a regular weekend.”
The new unsanctioned pop-up rally host in Wildwood, N.J., was not as fortunate. According to published reports throughout the weekend, hundreds of pop-up rally enthusiasts poured into the Jersey Shore resort town over the weekend, creating the same chaos and lawlessness experienced in Ocean City over the years.
Wildwood officials had advanced knowledge through social media platforms the unsanctioned event was likely headed their way and took some precautions, but they reportedly were not prepared for the sheer volume and chaos the event can create. The event in Wildwood took a tragic turn when two people were killed when a one vehicle crashed into another and then hit two pedestrians, according to published reports.
One of the pedestrians, an 18-year-old female, was killed as was a passenger in the struck vehicle. The suspect, a Pittsburgh, Pa., man, fled the scene initially but was later located and arrested. He has been charged with two counts of death by auto, assault and other offenses.
Last Friday, Wildwood officials issued a warning about the pending unsanctioned pop-up event. Throughout the weekend, the New Jersey State Police and law enforcement agencies from other surrounding jurisdictions were reportedly called in to control the chaos. This week, Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland issued a statement that could have come from Ocean City officials just a couple of years ago before the town has apparently reined in the unsanctioned event, at least for now.
“I would first like to share my sincere condolences with the families of the two victims who were needlessly killed and those that have been injured,” the statement reads. “Their lives will be forever changed. Make no mistake that the tragic and dangerous events over the last several days in Wildwood, Rio Grande, Seaville and surrounding communities are a direct result of the organizers of a pop-up car rally self-identified as H2Oi or H2O22. Directing hundreds if not thousands of people driving high performance vehicles to an area without any planning, staging or permitting created the chaos that led to these deaths and injuries. Anyone thinking of engaging in organizing any type of similar pop-up event is forewarned that there will be a swift and appropriate law enforcement and legal response.”