Burton on the Bay:

Crushed by the Indomitable Sea

It is far from easy to determine whether she [Nature] has proved to be a kind parent or merciless stepmother.

-Pliny the Elder, A.D. 23-79

Following the storms of last week - and with more forecast this week - one might mull those words of Gaius Plinius Secundus. Mother Nature has her way, and will continue to have her way.

Was the havoc she raised at the Ocean City-Assateague Island complex her maternal reminder that Man cannot tamper with Mother Nature? Or was she in her role as merciless stepmother, taking revenge on children who challenge her?

Will we ever learn that ultimately Nature will have her way? Humans can attempt to overrule her, but man is not God.

In reviewing the damage along the coast - and the response of those who have tinkered with nature and lost - there come to mind the words of John Milton more than 300 years ago:

Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part; Do thou but thine.

Our intended part is not what we have done at Ocean City, where we have developed mercilessly - at the expense of Assateague Island. In Canterbury Tales, Chaucer had the right words to describe our doings at Maryland's slim and vulnerable stretch of Atlantic Ocean beach between Delaware and Virginia:

It is agayns the proces of nature.

So much for the moment about literature past. Sadly we didn't learn from any of it. But the question remains: what do we do about Ocean City and Assateague Island?


How Many Wrongs Make a Right?

Probably the most feasible thing we can do is nothing. Let's face it: everything we've done so far is wrong - and two, five, 13 or a thousand wrongs don't make a right.

In developing Ocean City, we have ruined not only that stretch of Atlantic sea shore but also hastened the end of Assateague, a barrier island. And I might add, Ocean City, too, is nothing but a barrier island destined for the same fate.

Barrier islands are built by the sea and winds, destined to be wiped away by the sea and winds - with help from global warming, rising water levels, and worst of all, relentless development.

Basically, Assateague is undeveloped. Upon that 37-mile-long thin sliver of land there is but Assateague Island State Park, a primitive National Seashore Park and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the remnants of an old duck lodge or two, sand dunes capped with grass, fertile marshes, wild ponies and a bounty of fish and wildlife.

Add to that people. But whether they be hunters, fishermen, campers, beach buffs, birdwatchers, wildlife photographers or whatever, they return to their homes on the mainland.

Immediately north of Assateague, separated only by an inlet guarded by two long stone jetties, is Ocean City. Until the great storm that gouged the inlet from the sands in the '30s, Ocean City and Assateague were one.

Slowly at first, Ocean City gave way to development. Settlement was initially in the area of what is now the inlet, but for decades it grew slowly north, then accelerated toward the Delaware line.

Once the water tower was the landmark for fishing vessels, commercial and sport, returning from the sea.

The water tower is now dwarfed by a rag-tag collection of towering condominiums, each trying to outdo the other to sucker those who seek prestige as well as sun and sand. These structures rest precariously in sands, which we all must realize, are shifting. That's nature's way.

Those who live in and build the condos seem to think their challenge of nature can prevail - at least for the duration of their lifetime or their mortgages.

They come for the beach and the boardwalk. Yet when they build on the beach, they make it more vulnerable to the persistent storms of the Atlantic.

So, to buy time they build series of jetties and breakwaters, long and short.

They might for a while serve their purpose, but the indomitable sea will prevail. But when chinks appear in the maze of man-made protective barriers, the benevolent state pours more money in to replenish the beaches and shore up buildings.

Then everyone waits for the next storm, confident that once again the government will come to the rescue.

Tons upon tons of sand are pumped from the ocean to replenish beaches. Little does it matter to those who make the repairs, the condo owners and others who live and do business at Ocean City, that the silt from beach replenishment raises havoc with spawning fish, changes the shelf off the beach to further complicate the future, or worst of all, hastens the obliteration of Assateague Island.


So Long, Assateague Island

To save the tax base, the business, the investment in Ocean City, we are literally starving Assateague Island of the sands that would otherwise naturally replenish its beach and its vital dunes.

In Ocean City, the natural dunes are gone, replaced by phony piles of sand. But they don't fool nature. Ocean City was flooded by the recent pair of nor'easters. It was worse still at Assateague, where the storms came precariously close to creating another cut the width of the island.

This is only the beginning; future storms will finish the job. Another cut will hasten the demise of Assateague, which has been all but forgotten in the focus on repairing and replenishing developed Ocean City.

To hell with Assateague; why it's just a vast expanse of sand, marshes and wild ponies. So the thinking goes.

Curiously few in government and business seem to realize that this long stretch of barrier island, Ocean City and Assateague, is one and the same. Breaches of the shoreline here and there impact the remainder.

Being the resident curmudgeon of this publication almost from its beginning, I don't hesitate to bluntly insist to hell with Ocean City and its priorities. Quit pouring sand down a rat hole. Quit pouring our money down the same rat hole.

We have an unspoiled gem in Assateague Island, a still-primitive and scenic stretch of beach behind which are marshes ever so important to the spawning of fish, habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Ocean City developers wiped out much of its marshes: they were in the way when those who couldn't afford oceanfront condos settled for townhouses on the back bay. I remember the lush vegetation of the Sinepuxent Bay marsh, also farther up at Assawoman Bay.

I'll not forget the pitiful sight 25 years ago of headfish that had returned from the ocean to spawn in the back bay - only to discover their marsh was gone.

Do those hedonists who revel in the development of Ocean City realize the whole shebang of cluttered resort business, summer homes, condos and show places could be replaced? But we can never create another Assateague Island, that beloved and neglected stretch of sand where Mother Nature still reigns. Barely.

Let the condos tumble into the sea: they might help replenish the beach. Save Assateague for the wild ponies and those who appreciate the beauty of raw nature.

Enough said ...

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VolumeVI Number 6
February 12-18, 1998
New Bay Times

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