OCEAN CITY — The numbers are thrown around after each storm hits the shore: X million worth of damage here, X million worth of damage there.

But what do those numbers mean — and where do they come from?

Sometimes, in the wake of massive storm systems such as the “Veterans Day Storm” that battered the area from Nov. 11-15, initial estimates can be misleading — as in the case of Ocean City.

On Sunday, Nov. 15, as the last traces of the storm moved out, city officials scrambled to get preliminary numbers to Cape May County officials.

The initial estimate: a whopping $89 million in damages to the beachfront.

“There was limited access to parts of the beach,” Ocean City Emergency Management Director Frank Donato explained. “And there was a time crunch to get numbers to the county by the afternoon. We just made some rough, rough estimates. Obviously, with the price of beach replenishment, any oversight can add up. But there was never really $89 million in damages.”

The numbers caught the eye of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, whose own estimates — not counties’ or municipalities’ estimates — are what become official.

Several days after the storm passed, Donato said, FEMA officials drove through the city as part of three different teams — one “strictly looking at beach damage,” which Donato said he was personally involved with, one looking at public utility damage, and another looking at damage to the private sector.

The first FEMA group, Donato said, was not there to assess the entire beach.

“FEMA was not interested in the Army Corps’ beach,” said Donato, of the $15 million federal beach-replenishment project scheduled to begin this spring. “Half of the beach is Army Corps, and FEMA’s not going to put federal money on top of federal money.”

The estimate for all dune damage on the entire island came to about $6.5 million outside the Army Corps zone.

A simple formula?

The formula was simple, sort of. Engineers and project managers go out and measure the beach before and after each storm, Donato said. They then break it down into cubic yards.

The latest numbers available for the relative worth of the beach was the $15 million Army Corps project. Subtracting the $400,000 used for outfill work, that left a price of $14.6 million for 1.4 million cubic yards of sand. That came out to about $10.40 per cubic yard, which is the number Donato used in his estimates.

That was a “safe, conservative number,” he added.

When the same formula is applied with smaller, $8 million to $10 million projects such as emergency repairs — which have the same mobilization and demobilization costs as larger beach replenishment projects, even though they’re in a smaller area — the price per cubic-yard is even higher, Donato said.

“FEMA was right on board with us,” he said. “It was a fresh bid, so it was a good number. They agreed we could have even gone a little higher than that.”

The damage estimate for the loss of dunes, he added, was “factored up a little bit.” The amount of sand in dune sites was greater than on the beach, so he gave those sites a value of between $15 and $20 a cubic yard.

As for inside the Army Corps zone itself — and the designated beach replenishment area between the northern jetty and 18th Street suffered significant damage, especially in the Waverly Beach-East Atlantic Boulevard area — Donato was unsure how damages would be assessed.

“We will definitely try and revisit it to try to add on to that,” Donato said of the $15 million project, which has already gone out to bid and has been awarded to Great Lakes Dredge and Dock. The city could try to get change orders for additional relief, he said — or federal money could end  up being added to the beach replenishment area after all, if Cape May County is declared a federal disaster area.

Corzine’s request

 Gov. Jon S. Corzine requested such a declaration Wednesday, asking the federal government for more than $49 million to cover damage costs, including $27.3 million for Cape May County, $19.4 million for Ocean County and $3 million for Atlantic County.

 Outside of the beach, FEMA estimated public damage from saltwater intrusion at about $250,000, Donato said. In addition, the damage to several lifeguard stands would probably be recouped through insurance.

As for the private sector damage, “I’m not sure what that team came up with,” Donato said. “We did ‘windshield surveys’ immediately after the storm, and anything that was determined to be ‘private sector’ and that would have insurance, we just skipped right over in making our assessment.”

Even so, officials took note of the many homes that suffered water damage, and city and FEMA officials did meet with several homeowners and business owners to get feedback as to the private damage.

“If FEMA does declare our county a disaster area,” he said, “we would set up some sort of location where we’d make ourselves available to review people’s claims.”

In his letter to President Obama, Corzine wrote of several dunes in Ocean City “completely compromised and flood waters inundated nearly every street,” in addition to severe beach erosion in Wildwood and Long Beach Island.

“I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and the affected local governments,” Corzine stated.

Ocean City is still awaiting the “magic number” countywide, Donato said, and officials with the state Office of Emergency Management didn't respond to requests for comment before the holiday regarding the damage figures for individual municipalities during the inspections.

Using the money

So once the money gets there, what will it be used for?

Ocean City Administrator James Rutala said that the first order of business would be to replace the lost dunes — with something that will last.

“We’re looking at more permanent structures, like rocks, jetty rocks or gabions — stones in a wire mesh enclosure,” Rutala said.

“We’re fortunate that we have a dune system to protect,” he said. “It wasn’t even in existence 20 years ago.”

All this with winter still to come. Mayor Sal Perillo, meanwhile, remained confident that the sand would come back — one way or another.

“You come back in the spring and you'll be surprised by what you see,”  he said last week.

Staff writers Michael Miller and Thomas Barlas contributed to this report.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

609-272-7275