When Hurricane Gloria took a passing swipe at vulnerable Ocean City this morning, the damage centered on the structure that most exemplifies this resort town: its boardwalk. Whole blocks of the two-mile walk were buckled, ripped apart and strewn as far as one block inland by 65 mph winds and 15-foot waves.
It was the most visible evidence of the widespread destruction that visited Ocean City, even though it was coupled with irony: The boardwalk was to be replaced this winter anyway.
Elsewhere, soft drink machines and telephone booths lay on their sides. Windows of some oceanfront stores were broken and sea water lapped in. Sand formed three-foot dunes a block from the beach, and there were large hollows in asphalt parking lots where water rushed in and bowed out the pavement.
Here, as in other areas along the Virginia and Maryland shores, residents began cleaning up with a spirit of relief that the worst did not happen. Although power outages and local flooding were common along the coast, no fatalities were reported in the region, and most of the thousands of residents who spent Thursday in shelters from Virginia Beach, Va., to Rehoboth Beach, Del., were returning home today.
Damage in the Delaware beach areas was light. In Virginia Beach, Gloria knocked out more than half of a 700-foot fishing pier that juts into the ocean. But Virginia Beach officials, who spent Thursday gearing up for what they had said could be one of the worst hurricanes of the century, said today there appeared to be little major property damage in the area.
"I think we lucked out," said R. Lee Eskey, coordinator of emergency services for Virginia Beach. "We're very, very fortunate considering what we could have had."
Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, who flew to Ocean City this afternoon, declared a state of emergency on the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay, the first step toward seeking federal disaster aid.
Ocean City officials, who were still assessing the "moderate" storm damage to dozens of seaside dwellings and businesses, called the boardwalk wreckage "an ironic blessing."
"The good Lord did us a favor, in more ways than one," said City Manager Tony Barrett. The town had set aside $1 million from a capital improvement bond issue to replace the 23-year-old boardwalk this winter. "Now we don't have to tear it up," Barrett said.
Town residents quickly began their cleanup a few hours after the storm reached its 7 a.m. zenith. Officials closed the boardwalk from Fifth Street to 27th Street. Damage estimates were not available, but the widespread debris and destruction showed the force of even a mild hit by the ferocious hurricane.
On Ninth Street two hours after the storm passed, a blue Ford Fairmont sat in the middle of the street, flood water reaching its windows. The Atlantic Ocean swirled two feet deep in the Long Horn Steak House, in a basement on the boardwalk; the interior was a jumble of overturned tables and chairs.
"If the storm had come through here full force, this would be a brand new town," said George Conner, owner of the Santa Maria Motel at 15th Street and the boardwalk, which received minor damage.
"We came out of this smelling like a rose," said Mayor Roland (Fish) Powell, who helped coordinate much of the emergency operation. "The structural damage is not the end of the world. People evacuated just like we asked them to. There is some beach erosion -- there always will be -- but nature will give us some of that beach back with time."
Forty National Guard troops remain stationed in Ocean City to prevent looting.
Most of the estimated 10,000 area residents who were evacuated Thursday night to temporary shelters at inland public schools returned home around noon today. There were no serious injuries reported during the storm, although city Fire Marshal David Lankford had a heart attack last night after he apparently overexerted himself helping to fight two hotel fires, one small and one moderate. The cause of the fires was not known today, but fire officials said they were weather-related.
Although authorities along the Delaware beaches also asked residents to evacuate Thursday night, many people stayed at the shore and partied. Bars in Rehoboth Beach offered vodka-based concoctions with names like "hurricane shooters" and "raindrop shooters."
By 9 a.m. today, about 925 persons had been evacuated to a junior high school and the town's convention center.
Mary Alexander, a 74-year-old amputee, arrived at the convention center in a wheelchair, complete with portable oxygen tanks. She was still wearing what she described as a "shocking pink" dress that she had worn to celebrate her 49th wedding anniversary the evening before. "What a way to celebrate!" she said.
Although property damage was light in Rehoboth Beach, the protective sand dunes along the shoreline were considerably damaged. "This is the worst storm since 1962 as far as coastal damage is concerned," said Mayor John A. Hughes.
The beach was severely eroded in some areas, and waves piled two feet of sand across Rte. 1 five miles south of Rehoboth Beach. Mayor Hughes estimated that 30 houses in South Bethany sustained minor damage to heating units, steps, water and sewage connections and lawns from the high water.
Farther south, Gloria's fringes lashed the Tidewater region of Virginia with pelting rains and winds gusting up to 80 mph in the predawn hours today. The frequently violent gusts snapped hundreds of trees, knocked out power to an estimated 158,000 residents and littered highways with a thick carpet of debris. Officials said no large buildings received major structural damage.
Gov. Charles S. Robb, who flew over southeastern Virginia in a helicopter, told an afternoon news conference he was "pleased to be able to report I have nothing of major significance to report. This simply was not a devastating hurricane as far as Virginia is concerned, and we are extremely lucky," he said.
Area officials said that almost 30,000 residents and tourists sought refuge in Tidewater area storm shelters.
At the vulnerable beachfront resort of Sandbridge, the wind ripped wooden stairwells from many of the cottages that sit atop high stilts, ate away large chunks of sand dunes and barricaded roads with boards and other debris. Although few structures received major damage, the winds and pounding waves tore entire walls off a few older homes.
Officials said there was no major erosion or destruction from the 90 mph winds that swept by during the storm.
In Maryland, more than 3,600 residents were evacuated from low-lying areas of Anne Arundel, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties, but no serious storm damage was reported. Most people were sent home this morning.
Many Kent Island watermen had moved their crab and oyster boats into tiny creeks and had lashed them to trees and stakes. But Rudolph Green left his oyster boat where he always keeps it, at the pier next to Crouch's Seafood on Crab Alley Bay.
"I left mine here so if anything happened, it wouldn't have far to sink," he explained, pointing out that the water was shallow.
Green said he went home four times during the night but always came back to his boat. "I didn't rest too good," he said. "I got money invested in this."
By dawn, he said, his boots had sprung a leak and his boat had "cocked up sideways." But he got his boat straightened and bought a new pair of white boots, and things were looking up.
"We were lucky this time," he said.