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What's Up Magazine

Isabel’s Wrath and ’Canes of the Past

Sep 18, 2011 06:09PM ● By Anonymous

Thursday, September 18, 2003: 4:08 p.m.
Preparing for the bad weather headed his way, Captain Maurice Dashiell hauled his 40-foot wooden fishing boat Mary C. out of the water. He wondered if the boat was blocked high enough, but the lift had already moved on to other business. Dashiell dismissed his fleeting concerns and left south Kent Narrows, driving to his home on Winchester Creek to wait out the looming storm.

“I knew a big surge was coming,” says the Grasonville charter boat captain, a Rock Hall native, and professional fisherman since 1971. “I just didn’t expect anything that big.

“At midnight the water was halfway up my yard. At three in the morning you could actually watch it moving inland like Jaws. Da-dun, da-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun. Wasn’t anything gradual about it. When the dog wanted to go out at six, she stopped at the door because the water was right there.

“I’ve been on the water most of my life,” says Dashiell, “and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve seen more wind and I’ve seen more rain, but I’ve never seen more water.”

A Perfect Storm
Hurricane Isabel began off Africa’s coast in an atmospheric condition called a tropical wave, typical of the hurricanes that terrorize the eastern United States each year. Isabel grew in strength and scope as she moved across the Atlantic Ocean. Upon slamming ashore in North Carolina, Isabel was a category five tropical cyclone with sustained winds of more than 155 miles per hour. She remained at that highest possible level for almost two days, distinguishing herself as one of the longest such storms on record. The National Weather Service recorded gusts up to 234 miles per hour.

Ripping her way north, Isabel funneled water so powerfully into the Chesapeake Bay that she interrupted normal tidal cycles. Thousands of homes were damaged by the record-breaking surge. Businesses were crippled. Power outages were widespread and long-lasting. Tons of debris had to be dealt with. Ultimately, Isabel was responsible for 40 deaths and over five billion dollars worth of wreckage.

The warnings had been coming for days. Locals were either preparing or scoffing. Many were hedging their bets with a little of both. My wife and I [the author lives in Centreville] were mainly concerned about wind and the brittle old trees on our property. By one a.m. we thought Isabel was a dud.

Then the creek rose
There are hundreds of acres of marsh across the street from our home. We never gave the creek beyond the marshlands much thought. Then, watching as items on our enclosed front porch began to float, we started moving furniture, electronics, books, and personal items to higher ground inside the house. Despite our frantic activity there was a calm, predatory vibe in the air. There were no neighborhood noises. No cars going by, no rustling in the woods.

Twenty minutes later, the lower front section of our house was submerged in calf-deep water the color of rusty seaweed. The sulfurous stench of a wet electrical system was pervasive. We pulled all plug-ins but risked leaving the main power switch on; our sense of hopelessness would have been overwhelming in complete darkness.

We wished for sunrise then wished we hadn’t. In daylight, we could see we were surrounded, trapped on an island of our own. White caps formed in our back yard. Water lapped at our rear deck and the doorsill between our wetter-than-fish kitchen and so-far so-dry addition. Exhaustion set in. We collapsed knowing we’d done everything we could for the time being.

Destructive Storm Cycles
The Mid-Atlantic States are currently experiencing an active hurricane, or tropical cyclone, cycle that began in 1995. Cycles usually last 25 to 30 years and bring increased storm activity. Not every hurricane hits us, but when one does, it often packs a wallop. 

The year 1667 was remembered for generations as the Year of the Hurricane. Few pre-modern era weather records exist, but surviving accounts of this benchmark late-summer storm reflect its strength and severity. It was estimated that four-fifths of Maryland’s and Virginia’s crops were destroyed and as many as 15,000 houses, too.   

The Revolutionary period saw the Great Chesapeake Bay Hurricane of 1769 deliver tremendous agricultural and maritime losses. Six year later, the statehouse roof in Annapolis blew off during the Independence Hurricane of 1775.  

In 1821, the Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane tracked across the lower Eastern Shore before ravaging the barrier islands along the Atlantic Coast with tsunami-like waves. Fifty-six years later, an ‘aged Chincoteaguer’ provided Scribner’s Monthly with a remarkable narrative of this thankfully rare occurrence. “In the early morning the terrified inhabitants, looking from their windows facing the ocean, saw an awful sight: the waters had receded…and where the Atlantic had rolled the night before, miles of sand bars lay bare to the gloomy light…a dull roar came near and nearer and suddenly a solid mass of wind and rain and salt spray leaped upon the devoted island with a scream…and a monstrous wall of inky waters rushed with the speed of lightning toward the island.” 

One of the worst maritime disasters in Chesapeake Bay history occurred during the Great October Gale of 1878. The 200-foot freight and passenger steamer Express sank near Point Lookout, Virginia, killing 16 passengers.

Good often comes from bad. Surf generated by the Chesapeake and Potomac Hurricane of 1933, the most severe since 1821, carved an inlet into Ocean City’s southern end that was made permanent. The new harbor offered easy access to the Atlantic Ocean and has helped establish Ocean City as a world-class fishing port. 

The remnants of 1935’s Great Labor Day Hurricane, the most powerful recorded hurricane to make landfall in the United States, drenched the Eastern Shore with rain. Easton reported a total of 16.63 inches. Severe flooding in Federalsburg led to the displacement of nearly half the town’s population. A1936 hurricane washed away much of Ocean City’s boardwalk and pier. Major tropical cyclone activity also caused damage to Maryland’s famous seaside resort in 1938 and 1944. Weather experts warn we’re overdue for another.

The practice of identifying hurricanes by a woman’s name became practice during World War II, following the use of a women’s name for a storm in George R. Stewart’s 1941 novel Storm. The practice was officially established in 1953 by the U.S. Hurricane Hazel blew in a year later. After killing up to 1,000 Haitians as it spiraled across the Caribbean, Hazel made landfall along the border of the Carolinas on the morning of October 15, 1954. Hazel was the last tropical cyclone to carry actual hurricane force winds and was a frustrating defier of forecasts, even more unpredictable than most hurricanes. Extreme winds combined with unrelenting rainfall. Almost 100 American lives were lost. Hazel delivered an economically paralyzing blow to the Eastern Shore’s economy, flattening unpicked corn in the field while simultaneously sinking workboats and flooding oyster shucking houses. The storm blew through the United States and into Canada where it continued to take lives.

Hazel, like a bad-mojo all star, was one of the first hurricane names to be retired.
Storms like this occur only twice a century; once again, climatologists warn we’re behind schedule. 

Hurricane Agnes was an uncommon June storm. A category one storm when it arrived on Florida’s panhandle, what began as a modest tempest moved northeast and weakened even more. Unfortunately, however, Agnes began to gather strength as it crossed Georgia and the Carolinas and bounced back into the Atlantic. Veering northwest, Agnes combined with another low-pressure system over Pennsylvania. The systems stalled and dumped tons of rain on almost the entire East Coast. One of the Chesapeake Bay’s most destructive natural disasters, 1972’s Agnes was an ecological catastrophe. Excessive amounts of fresh water, silt runoff, and the spillage of tons of raw sewage resulted in massive seafood kills. As befitting a ‘Storm of the Century,’ Agnes’ name has also been retired.

In 1979, The National Hurricane Center started adding men’s names to the alphabetical list used to identify hurricanes. Hurricane Hugo, though disastrous to other regions of the country, inflicted minimum hardship on the Eastern Shore in 1989. Hurricane Andrew set damage records in 1992 that weren’t exceeded until Hurricane Katrina clobbered New Orleans in 2005, but again the Shore was spared the worst of both storms.

Floyd was a different story. With 14 inches of rain measured in Chestertown, the 1999 storm combined with high water levels left behind by Tropical Storm Dennis the week before to cause widespread flooding throughout the region. Trees were uprooted by the thousands, crashing onto buildings and vehicles. Witnesses reported seeing the ground throb as huge trees seemed to gasp for breath before toppling.

And then there was Isabel
We never lost power until late Friday morning when a sailboat drifted into some overhead wires near Marshy Creek. Then we loaded our dogs and a change of clothes into a skiff we borrowed from a high and dry neighbor just two houses away. People cruising speedily past in four-wheel drive vehicles created a wake that added insult to injury.

After a shower and a bite to eat at our neighbor’s home, my cousin and I joined the time honored tradition of hurricane sightseers. We drove around to look at what other damage our girl had caused. Many areas looked untouched, but the pockets of devastation were numbing. Around noon we went home and the water was gone—across the street and almost back where it belonged. If not for the soggy destruction left behind, it would have almost been like Isabel hadn’t happened.

Months of renovations started immediately. With the help of many hands, we tore out and replaced half our home. And counted our blessings.

Brent Lewis feels Isabel is the only hurricane he knows well enough to identify by feminine personal pronouns.