Although it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Maryland, even graduating seniors don’t cause the disorder that Ocean City experiences at the start of fall.
Once a year, hordes of car enthusiasts fill the streets for the unofficial gathering born from the car show H2O International, or H2Oi.
The town has been at odds with participants of the car meetup for years, but it wasn’t always that way.
Here’s some background on the event’s history and how it has changed since its inception.
What is H2Oi?
H2Oi exists both as an official car show and a separate, unaffiliated event. Both were unsanctioned by the town of Ocean City. The unofficial pop-rally — driven mostly by social media — draws thousands of people to the resort to showcase their modified cars.
Throughout its run in Ocean City, the notoriously chaotic gathering has involved pedestrian crashes, clashes with law enforcement, attacks against officers, possession of weapons and drugs, and assaults on police horses.
The official event, which has been held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, since 2018, is unconnected to the current Ocean City gathering.
Unofficial H2Oi gatherings are organized on social media and typically take place at the end of September.
Was H2Oi always this hectic?
Concerns about traffic violations during H2Oi date as far back as 2010, when the official event was still held in Worcester County, though not in Ocean City.
Some 2010 attendees were racing from red lights on Coastal Highway, making illegal U-turns and speeding.
During the 2010 H2Oi event, calls to respond to auto crashes were double compared to the year prior.
On average, Ocean City police made 53 arrests during the event between 2010 and 2015. The even became more chaotic in 2014, with 1,096 Ocean City police calls for serve.
That number increased to more than 2,700 during H2Oi 2017, during which law enforcement made over 1,200 traffic stops and 78 arrests. The number of traffic wrecks during 2017 was double what it was the year before.
The 2019 event had 121 arrests, topping the previous year with 80.
In 2020, arrests more than doubled, reaching 277. There were 345 vehicles towed. Traffic stops were at 1,218, and total calls for service (citizen and officer initiated) reached 2,802.
Why it can’t be sanctioned, given a venue or moved
Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, have given people a way to self-organize events, which is as easy and effective as it is difficult to police.
H2Oi is similar to “flash mobs,” said Jenn Mackay, an associate professor of communications at Virginia Tech, in 2017.
Flash mobs are typically benign events, she said, where groups coordinate online to assemble in a given place at a given time, often for artistic or satirical purposes.
After H2Oi was canceled, attendees organized meetups on social media that were challenging for authorities to track. It was a strategy used by protesters during Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring, Mackay said, when leaderless movements tracked police movement and gave alerts about where to meet.
“There’s so much social media that it’s hard for police to watch all of it at once,” Mackay said. “It’s difficult to predict, it’s widespread, and it creates real challenges for them.”
Cries to call in the National Guard
The Ocean City Police Department has collaborated with other law enforcement agencies to assist with H2Oi since at least 2016.
Beginning with unofficial H2Oi 2018, the town established special events zones (areas where speed limits are reduced and violators could be subject to increased fines) on parts of Coastal Highway and Philadelphia Avenue.
In spite of their efforts, law enforcement struggled to tame illegal activity during H2Oi in all its versions.
State representatives for Worcester County introduced legislation in 2018 that would have increased fines for other traffic violations, such as negligent driving, car racing and burnouts. However, the bill was voted down.
In 2017, an Ocean City task force discussed calling in the National Guard. However, Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro shot down the possibility.
“In my experience, there’s only been a handful of times the guard has been introduced, lastly in Baltimore in 2015, a year before in Ferguson, and in the early ’90s during the L.A. riots,” he said in 2017. “We’re dealing with lawlessness, but not true criminality that would need (to) involve the National Guard.”
Calls for use of the National Guard continued during 2021 planning.
In 2020, the Maryland State Police deployment was among the largest in state history, with neighboring law enforcement jurisdictions also assisting. Additional traffic measures were deployed including shifting traffic patterns.
What’s next for H2Oi
The 2020 iteration of H2Oi resulted in more than 500 cases of charges filed in Worcester County, not including minor traffic citations. Ocean City accounted for 396 of those cases.
Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro said the town has based plans to handle the pop-up rally going forward on what it learned from previous years.
In April 2021, the Maryland Department of Transportation announced plans to to step up enforcement between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Ocean City during H2Oi through the through the Bay to Beach Highway Safety initiative.
Local police will watch for speeding, aggressive driving and any vehicles that don’t meet state safety standards during the safety week, said Greg Slater, Maryland secretary of transportation.
The special event zone will be expanded into portions of Worcester County.
Ocean City has also signed an agreement with data collection companies. The town will collect information after the 2021 event on who comes to H2Oi and where they go throughout the town and county.
Jessica Waters, Ocean City communications manager, said Ocean City will use data collecting to learn how to further mitigate crime during the unsanctioned event.
In 2022, Ocean City hopes to hold a three-day concert during the weekend of H2Oi. Additionally, the town wants to host a sporting event that weekend.
“For the last 10 years when the pop-up rally was here, we’ve kind of been on the defense,” Meehan said. “I think we all feel it’s time to go on the offense and set our own destiny.”