The 1999 summer season has been a good one for business on the Delaware and Maryland shores. Hotels were sold out most weekends, bus ridership in nearby Ocean City, Md., hit the million mark for the first time in July, and Thrasher's French Fries nearly ran out of potatoes.
Rachel Hughes, who co-owns Rehoboth Sport & Kite Co., was trying to keep that in perspective as the remnants of Tropical Storm Dennis closed the beach outside her boardwalk shop for the fourth consecutive day. The wind was blowing so hard that Hughes could not prop open the door as usual or display her merchandise outside. The glass windows were covered by a salty film.
"We've had a great summer," said Hughes, who owns two other sports shops, a second in Rehoboth and one in Dewey Beach, Del. "But you can barely even walk on the boardwalk. No one is going to stop there. This is killing us."
Dennis, which is not expected to threaten the Delaware or Maryland coasts this weekend, is nonetheless having an effect on an area that has seen little but sunshine and perfect beach weather for most of the summer.
Merchants said the drought, while a disaster for farmers, actually helped the tourism business, which already was benefiting from a good economy.
"We don't need rain down here," said John Lynch, owner of The Commander Suites and Cabanas on the Ocean City boardwalk. "Any time you have a dry season, it helps us. People like sunny days when they come to the beach."
Ocean City drew 250,000 visitors last weekend, close to the number it typically draws on holidays. Rehoboth Beach also saw record numbers of visitors, up to 80,000 on the Fourth of July weekend.
"In general, it's just been a phenomenal season," said Nikki Rayne, executive assistant for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. "It's been great for everyone."
Sales tax revenue on hotel and condominium rentals in Ocean City increased each month this summer, compared with 1998, bringing in $1.7 million in the first six months of the year, said Martha Bennett, the town's finance administrator.
May tax revenue was up 5.1 percent from 1998; the June increase was 2.1 percent; and the July increase was 13.3 percent.
The town's transit buses, which run tourists up and down the beach, also had a record-breaking year. In June, the buses carried 850,430 riders, compared with 808,815 in 1998. July ridership broke the 1 million mark, with 1,088,689 passengers, compared with 971,648 last year.
By the first of August, the fry guys at Thrasher's knew they were in trouble. The company had to order an extra 2,000 pounds of potatoes to last out the summer.
"This was probably the best season ever," said Craig N. Barner, assistant district manager for the Rehoboth french fry stands.
Long & Foster Real Estate Inc., which has 1,250 rental properties on the coast, reported a 38 percent increase in reservations from Memorial Day to Labor Day, compared with the same period in 1998.
"That is an amazing number," said Jim Waggoner, vice president of resort rentals in Delaware and Maryland. "This is the first week this year that we haven't had fantastic weather."
Because of high waves and dangerous currents caused by Tropical Storm Dennis, swimming has been prohibited since Monday in Ocean City and in Delaware's Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach, South Bethany and Fenwick Island.
A heavy surf advisory remained in effect today. The winds were calmer compared with earlier in the week but still gusted up to 20 mph. The waves roared in, reaching four to six feet before breaking.
"Anyone we let in, we'd have to pull out," said Lt. Warren Williams, of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. "We're allowing surfers to go in, but we haven't had any takers. It's still pretty nasty."
Officials could not say for certain whether swimming would be allowed by the weekend.
Yellow police tape continued to block access to the beach in Rehoboth today, which was covered in water again at high tide. The beach has narrowed considerably over the past four days from Dennis's high winds and waves. At the beach in Ocean City, which is naturally wider in places, the wind still kicked up the sand, blowing it back toward the dune fences. But the beach was open.
The National Weather Service has forecast partly cloudy skies for most of the Labor Day weekend, with a chance of showers Sunday and Monday.
John Berdini, owner of Cloud 9 restaurant and bar in Rehoboth Beach, said it's been hard to plan for the Labor Day weekend crowds because the forecast has been unpredictable all week. He said customers are calling to ask about weather conditions. A few have canceled their reservations.
But, Berdini said, he still expects the town to be crowded.
"People have made plans," he said. "A lot of them have summer rentals to close up, or their reservations are non-refundable."
Franco Laragione, co-owner of Mama Maria in Dewey Beach, said he isn't worried, either.
"This might be a screwy weekend where people stay in and eat and drink," he said. "But that's good for business."
CAPTION: In Ocean City, Md., few people walk the beach, where the winds of Tropical Storm Dennis have left a layer of drifted sand on everything.
CAPTION: Rachel Hughes and Bee Linzey, owners of Rehoboth Sport & Bike Co., test one of their shop's kites.
CAPTION: People stroll along Ocean City's windy boardwalk. The Maryland vacation spot drew 250,000 last weekend, but swimming has been banned since Monday.