From Operation Five High to the Existing Ocean City Project
The havoc the Ash Wednesday Storm wrought to the Atlantic Coast of Maryland was the impetus for the current coastal storm risk management project that reduces risk to Ocean City today.
Following this storm, Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers to study erosion control and hurricane protection along the Atlantic Coast of Worcester County in 1963.
Throughout the study and design phase, the storm was not far from the minds of personnel with the Corps Baltimore District.
“The Ash Wednesday Storm was the ‘design storm’ for the project,” said Baltimore District Project Manager Justin Callahan, who has worked on the project in various capacities since the late 1990s, eventually becoming the project manager in 2013. “Meaning those waves and conditions and total water surface elevation are what the project was designed to protect against.”
Study of the Atlantic Coast of Maryland stopped and restarted over the years for various reasons ranging from cost concerns to lack of local interest in a federal project to debate regarding consideration of rock groins rather than sand placement, but eventually culminated in a formal recommendation in 1981 for a hurricane protection project as well as erosion control.
During this time, however, the federal government through the Corps was scaling back its “erosion control” efforts, leaving beach construction geared toward recreation to local interests.
The Corps and the state of Maryland coordinated throughout the 1980s, resulting in formal project authorization in 1986, contingent upon local beach construction led by Maryland. That local work was completed in 1988, using 2.3 million cubic yards of sand. This allowed for the federal project, consisting of improvements designed specifically for coastal storm risk management, to move forward into final design and construction.
“The state essentially did phase 1 of the beach project,” Callahan said. “And the federal government came in and did what you could consider as phase 2 of the project.”
That “phase 2,” would be construction of the coastal storm risk management project that began in 1991 and is still seen today at Ocean City. It is a cost-shared partnership between the Corps and the state of Maryland.
The authorized project consisted of improvements to the beach as well as to the boardwalk in Ocean City. A 100-foot-wide beach berm elevated to 8.5 feet above the National Geodetic Vertical Datum (NGVD), a standard used for coastal construction that’s similar to mean sea level at Ocean City. The berm was constructed along the entire project area, from the Maryland-Delaware line to 3rd Street in Ocean City near Ocean City inlet. The small area further south naturally accretes sand, and there is a wide beach there.
From 4th Street north to 27th Street, where the boardwalk ends, a 14.5 foot-high NGVD steel sheet piling bulkhead with a concrete cap was constructed along the oceanward edge of the boardwalk. From the end of the boardwalk north, a 14.5-foot-high NGVD dune with a 25-foot-wide crest at the top backstops the constructed beach berm until the Maryland-Delaware line. The dune is reinforced with plantings and has more than 200 dune crossings.
Initial construction on all elements was completed in 1994, including repairs from two significant storms during construction. The project includes the authority for periodic renourishment as needed, which on average, comes to about 800,000 cubic yards of sand every four years.
While Callahan noted the project loses an average of 175,000 cubic yards of material a year, he said the project is resilient against larger storms that occasionally come along.
“The project itself does a relatively good job of repairing itself,” Callahan said. “You can go out there the week after you have a storm and you can measure and see that there are horrific sand losses to the dune and the beach berm. But, what we also see is that most of that sand is drug right offshore of the project and its sitting there on a big fat sand bar right off the beach. The wave attack pulls the sand away out to the ocean, but it doesn’t take it too far away, and then the general, normal wave action pushes it back up on shore again.”
The Atlantic Coast of Maryland Shoreline Protection Project Today
To date, based solely on major storms that have struck Ocean City since initial work was substantially completed in 1991 on the Atlantic Coast of Maryland Shoreline Protection Project, the Corps estimates that roughly $927 million in damages have been prevented. That includes damages prevented during the storms that impacted the project prior to construction being considered fully complete in 1994.
That figure does not reflect benefits from smaller nor’easters and other smaller storms. Some of the major storms taken into account include the November 2009 “Nor’Ida” storm that was a combination of a nor’easter and the remnants of Hurricane Ida, Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“With Hurricane Irene, Ocean City was literally in the eye of the storm bringing 60 mile-per-hour winds and 20-foot seas, and the storm event that we had been warned would wipe out Ocean City had arrived. It came during our busy summer season, and, expecting the worst, we successfully evacuated the town,” said City Engineer Terry McGean of Ocean City. “When the sun came up Sunday morning I sent out our damage assessment teams. Instead of toppled buildings and destroyed infrastructure, we found some loose siding and a pothole in a city parking lot. By noon, our businesses were open, and we had one of the busiest Labor Day weekends in years.”
McGean praised the project and the partnership with the Corps, highlighting the benefits to Ocean City over the years.
“Since the completion of the project there have been no structural damages from ocean flooding and more importantly, there have been no injuries or deaths from storms,” McGean said. “Thanks to beach replenishment and the continued commitment of the Army Corps of Engineers to the project, Ocean City has been well prepared for Hurricane Irene and other storms that could have been devastating.”
Just this past year, a vicious nor’easter, referred to in the media as “Winter Storm Jonas,” hit Ocean City hard, striking as a “70-year” storm in January 2016 and removing an estimated 900,000 cubic yards of sand from the beach project in the short term. As noted earlier, though, much of that sand was just offshore and over time has returned the project. The project performed as designed, reducing the storm’s impact to the community, and prevented an estimated $200 million in damages to property. This estimate is based on the ferocity of the storm and the project performing as designed, though the project itself suffered significant damage to the dunes and beach berm.
Corps personnel, working closely with the state of Maryland and the Town of Ocean City, inspected the damage to the project from the storm and began incorporating the storm’s impacts into plans for future renourishment.
Even with the heavy damage to the project, the protective elements - the berm, dune and bulkhead - continue to reduce risks and damages even during nor’easters that have struck this winter.
The Corps plans to carry out scheduled periodic renourishment later this year, pending the availability of federal funds, after the summer beach season is over. The last renourishment was in 2014, following the project being impacted by Hurricane Sandy while reducing risks to Ocean City.
The Town of Ocean City has already completed work to restore impacts to the dunes from the January 2016 storm, so the Corps’s renourishment work will focus on restoring the wide flat berm to its authorized dimensions, so it can continue to work in concert with the dune and bulkhead systems to reduce risks to Ocean City.
Callahan noted that he’s proud to be able to work on a project that helps reduce risk to Ocean City from coastal storms, helping to preserve the town that’s not only an economic driver for the region, but a cultural icon for Marylanders and others nearby.
“If you grew up in Baltimore like I did, going down to ‘the Ocean,’ to me, to this day, if I’m not down at Ocean City, summer hasn’t occurred yet, you know what I mean? And I’m dead serious about that. If you grew up around here, Ocean City is summer.”
(This is the conclusion of a three-part series about the historic Ash Wednesday Storm and the later construction of the Corps of Engineers coastal storm risk management project in Ocean City, Maryland.)