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Hurricane Isabel

Sep 14, 2011 12:11AM ● Published by Anonymous

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2003: 11:59 P.M.

Around midnight on a mid-September eve, Edgewater residents, Pete and Karen Patterson weren’t snug in bed. Instead they were huddled on a landing of their steep hillside stairway that leads down to their pier and boat dock. Sitting there with an umbrella to catch the light rain and holding a flashlight to peer at the silhouette of their 24-foot Chaparral boat perched on their boat lift, they watched the waters of Warehouse Creek lap up against the pilings. During that long evening, they waited to see how high the creek would rise.

Pete walked out to the pier to secure the boat lines to the pilings in case the creek rose to the lift. He felt his way step by step through the waist-deep water, hoping the pier would stay solid under his feet.

At one a.m. the couple decided, “Creek looks ok now.” When the water leveled off, they went to bed.

Morning came—bright and beautiful. The sun rose over the creek and all was still. “It was so eerie,” says Karen. “All I could see was a light on the top of our pier. In fact, there weren’t any piers to be seen in our creek. They were all underwater. The boats just seemed to be floating loose. We realized then that our boat was floating over our lift and that the lift’s motor had been submerged under water all night long when the storm surge came in.

Pete and I and two of our children walked through chest-deep water on our pier. We got to our boat and we managed to adjust the lines and steady the boat back onto our lift that wouldn’t work anymore.”

All down Almshouse Creek, the next creek over from the Pattersons, the storm surge had submerged cars, and flooded homes and piers. Water crept up to doorways and windows. The lower lying homes in the Londontowne community of Edgewater were flooded. “We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” says Karen.

Everywhere in their own creek, they spotted debris floating along with the current—tree branches, wood and garbage. “After the boat lift motor was fixed and we could take the boat out, we had to be really careful to avoid all that stuff,” Karen remarks.

It was also difficult to believe what was going on in downtown Annapolis, now overrun with close to seven feet of water. The storefronts had been lined with sandbags and some adventurous residents were biking, walking and boating around the Annapolis waterfront. Hardest hit was the 85-year-old McNasby’s Oyster Packing Plant building, which had become the home of the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

Isabel’s storm surge tore loose the dock’s pilings, which then rammed into the museum’s cinderblock walls. The docks were completely washed away as six feet of water poured into the old building and soon devastated it. Fortunately, the museum employees and volunteers had moved furniture and artifacts to the second floor before the storm hit.

On September 1st, 2003 Isabel was a mere tropical wave off the west coast of Africa. By September 11th, Isabel was whirling in the Atlantic as a Category 4 hurricane. Later that day, she reached the rare status of a Category 5, as she steered northward towards the U.S. By the time she made landfall near Drum Inlet on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, on September 18th, she’d lost much of her strength, becoming a Category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 105 mph. By the time she reached the Mid-Atlantic on September 18th, she’d weakened to a tropical storm.

This storm left almost 1.5 million residents of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia without power and prompted Pepco officials to say it was the worst power outage they had ever experienced because the wet ground conditions enabled the winds to topple more trees across power lines.

Isabel left damaged homes, buildings, and property in her wake. The damage she caused was an estimated five billion dollars to U.S. property. One shudders to think that if a tropical storm can perpetrate this much damage in our area, what devastation a category 4 or 5 hurricane could cause.

Predicting Paths of Destruction
Are hurricanes on the rise? Will we be seeing more of them as our planet warms up? The latest prediction from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—(NOAA) for the 2011 hurricane season answers these questions with a resounding, YES. It’s predicting 12 to 18 named storms.

Six to 10 of those could become hurricanes blowing in with winds of 74 mph or higher. Three to six of those storms could turn into major hurricanes packing winds of 111 mph or more. Since 1995, an above average number of hurricanes have sprung up in the Atlantic Ocean.

In contrast, hurricane activity in the Mid-Atlantic region has been rather sedate except for Isabel in 2003. “No major hurricanes have made landfall north of Florida and the Gulf Coast since the mid-1990s,” says Richard Schwartz, author of Hurricanes and the Middle Atlantic States. He thinks that’s about to change. “We are due for the big one,” he warns.

“In North America we only have 400 years of written history to go by. But during that time, there’s been a cyclical pattern of hurricane activity that occurs every 50–60 years. That climate history is predictable.”

According to his seven-year research, inland hurricanes have occurred in cycles since 1667. The last major wind event to wreak havoc in the Mid-Atlantic was Hurricane Hazel on October 15, 1954–57 years ago. That storm made U.S. landfall in North Carolina, where it skidded in with winds clocked at 140 mph. Hazel then raced up the coast to the Mid-Atlantic where she blew in with winds of 78 mph. She unleashed much of her fury on the Chesapeake Bay region—with winds gusting to 100 mph.

From there, she blew up the coast to Canada leaving 95 people dead and property destruction of $281 million in her wake. In 1969, Dr. Bob Simpson, Director of the National Hurricane Center and Herbert Saffir, a consulting engineer, developed a rating scale to measure the destructive power of hurricanes for the World Meteorological Organization. Now called the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, it measures the intensity of a hurricane by its wind velocity and the damage the wind causes—ranging from Categories 1-5. The least intense hurricane would have winds clocked at 74 to 95 mph.The most intense would be catastrophic—with winds greater than 155 mph.

Isabel, which was downgraded to tropical storm status by the time she reached the Mid-Atlantic, still packed a wallop with massive power outages everywhere and a six-to eight-foot storm surge.

“This highly populated and congested area would not be prepared for a major hurricane,” says Schwartz, “especially if it tracks between the Chesapeake Bay and the Blue Ridge Mountains, like Isabel did in 2003. That would be really significant.”

He believes a storm such as Hazel or worse would topple not only trees and utility poles, but barns, trailers, crops and poorly constructed houses. Millions of inhabitants could lose power.

“It would be our version of the great California Earthquake.” When and if it does make landfall in our area, Schwartz expects it to roll in during either September or October when most Mid-Atlantic hurricanes appear. If that occurs, Isabel may become a distant memory


Anne McNulty has written a variety of Chesapeake Bay-related articles for What’s Up? Media and now claims to have an allweather radio.

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