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« Blue Highways: Crisfield, Maryland | Main | Blue Highways: Somewhere on the Delaware Shore »

Blue Highways: Ocean City, Maryland

Unfolding the Map

Amidst the development of Ocean City, just recently ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, we stop for a moment to think about development decisions.  Just why do, or should, we build on barrier islands?  That's my question for the day, explored below.  Locate Ocean City by checking out the Littourati Blue Highways map.

Book Quote

"Near Ocean City, Maryland, the shore became a six-lane strip of motels and condominiums tied together by powerlines.  The playground of Baltimore and Washington."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 13

Aerial view of Ocean City, Maryland. Photo by Tex Jobe at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Ocean City, Maryland

I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to write with the Ocean City theme, given the shortness of the quote and its otherwise unexciting information, until I looked at Ocean City on Google Earth.  The recent landfall of Hurricane Sandy, only a category 1 hurricane on the 5 point Saffir-Simpson Scale, underscored the fragility of Ocean City and other developed areas along barrier islands.  A barrier island is basically a spit of sand, built up by tidal action, that is separated by shallow waters from the mainland.

Barrier islands have served as a much needed bulwark against such storms as Sandy, and even more powerful storms.  As a hurricane moves toward land, its rotation and energy pushes a tremendous volume of water in front of it, much like a bulldozer pushes dirt.  This surge can be augmented by tides, so that the surge will be higher if the hurricane comes ashore at high tide than it would be if the surge comes ashore at low tide.

Barrier islands, as the first pieces of land that a storm surge hits, weaken the force of the surge and spare the mainland from the main force of the water.  Buildings that are on the mainland behind barrier islands may thus get spared the main brunt of the most damaging element, water, and therefore are much more likely to survive with little or no damage.

So why, might you ask, have we built up populated areas on the very places that get the main brute force of hurricanes?

The answer is money and politics.  Barrier islands are beachfront property, and developers find beachfront property prime areas to develop with condos overlooking the water, restaurants, luxury hotels, and other high-priced items to draw tourists, especially well-heeled ones from the nearby metropolises.  As development happens, and people begin to buy their summer condos and vacation homes, the less-wealthy arrive to fill the jobs at the restaurants and hotels and other service industries.  Sometimes, before you know it, a municipality has been created or enhanced in places that appear to be mini-paradises.

You've heard of many of these places.  South Padre Island, TexasGalveston, Texas.  Atlantic City, New Jersey.  In a few weeks, I'll be heading to Sarasota, Florida where part of the city consists of development along Siesta and Longboat Keys.  Tourists flock to these places for the mix of sun, sand, water and amenities and wealthier people buy houses along the water to enjoy the boating and to have a home-away-from-home.  I'm not suggesting that these places are going to go away...yet...

In 1900 the city of Galveston had one of the largest ports in the country which competed in importance with New York and New Orleans.  A city of 37,000 people had grown on this narrow spit of sand when the storm known as the Great Hurricane of 1900 hit.  Years of surviving other storms had convinced residents that they would never need fear any storms, and they had resisted building a proposed seawall to protect the city.  Galveston Island, only 8 and 1/2 feet high at its maximum, was completely inundated by an estimated 17 foot storm surge which tore buildings from their foundations and washed them into Galveston Bay behind.  Anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 people died as a direct result from the storm, either from the storm itself or being buried for days under wreckage.  As a result, the glory days of Galveston passed, and though remnants of it are left, it has never regained its lost glory.

We may still ask the question, as people still clean up from our modern-day Hurricane Sandy, only a week or so distant in the past as I write this post, which ripped through the barrier-island city of Ocean City and caused widespread flooding and damage.  Why do we develop barrier islands?  After all, these places when hit sustain millions and billions of dollars in damages.  The resulting effects take their toll on all of us.  Insurance rates rise as claims are filed.  Taxes go to emergency relief and other programs that create stresses on federal, state and local governments.  People do not help themselves, refusing evacuation orders and then flooding hospitals with injuries that places stresses on health care.  Disease outbreaks are always a potential problem in the aftermath of hurricanes.  The latest report I've heard from Hurricane Sandy is the fear that unscrupulous people will refurbish hurricane-damaged vehicles and flood the used car market without revealing that they are storm-damaged cars.

I remember after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans (not on a barrier island but dependent on natural features such as the extensive, and disappearing, system of bayous and wetlands to blunt hurricanes as they approach), many people in the U.S. asked why should the the country continue to provide funding and relief to a place that exists below sea level and is likely to be hit by hurricanes.  Notwithstanding that New Orleans is one of our oldest and most historically significant cities, and that many people who live there have known no other place in their lives - it is their home - I think it is a fair question.  But if we are willing to ask that question, we should also be willing to ask the question of barrier island development.  Why should the U.S. continue to allow development when we know that hurricanes will scour these islands clean every so often?  For that matter, we should ask the question whenever there is development in areas that are subject to natural disaster.  Why should we allow farming and towns in known floodplains?  Should we keep allowing development in Tornado Alley when we know that tornadoes cause widespread damage there?  Why should we allow cities to be built along active fault lines that will occasionally rupture and cause widespread devastation?  Why should development occur in the shadows of volcanoes that will eventually erupt?

If we are willing to understand that along with benefits there will occasionally be costs in lives and property, as well as more diffuse costs in services and health, and we are willing to accept these costs, then we should build away.  But we should be aware that there will be costs, as nature every so often tragically reminds us.

Musical Interlude

In the 1960s, Tom Rush recorded Wasn't That a Mighty Storm, an old spiritual that may be about the Great Hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston.  The song could easily apply to wherever hurricanes hit barrier islands. The footage of the destruction of Galveston in the accompanying video was filmed by none other than Thomas Edison.

If you want to know more about Ocean City

Maryland Coast Dispatch (newspaper)
Ocean City Chamber of Commerce
Ocean City Convention and Visitors Bureau
Town of Ocean City
Wikipedia: Ocean City

Next up: Crisfield, Maryland

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