If you’re like me, you’ve been keeping a wary eye on the forecast to see if Hurricane Lee is going to be a pain. If you’re not like me, well, be more like me.
It can be hard to distinguish between the real danger and overhyped social media feeds or breathless TV news updates. But yes, Maryland does experience these tropical storms and hurricanes. We’re not Florida, to be sure, but it happens.
Take Isabel, for example.
On Sept. 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel rolled out of the Atlantic and over the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Like Lee, it had been a Category 5 storm, the most severe, but was down to 105 mph winds by landfall. It moved inland, dropped to a tropical storm and washed through Western Maryland on the way to Ohio the next day. Sounds harmless enough, right?
Think about a hurricane, for a minute. At a minimum, it has sustained 74 mph winds that spin counterclockwise around a calm center. Isabel’s huge arms, covering 460 miles, extended right over the Chesapeake Bay.
Now, imagine a big bathtub full of water. Climb in and scooch down near the drain. Then extend your legs. As your butt slides toward the back of the tub, the water builds up behind you.
Exert enough energy and you can send a wall of water rushing up and over the rim. It makes quite a mess, too.
Bath time is all good clean fun, but picture the Chesapeake Bay as your tub, particularly the 129 miles from Annapolis south to Cape Charles and the Atlantic Ocean, and the threat becomes clear. There are 18 trillion gallons of water in the bay, enough to fill about 10 billion bathtubs.
Expand the mess in your imaginary bathroom so that it floods Annapolis. That’s what Isabel did.
It pushed water 7 feet high up the Chesapeake, a phenomenon known as a storm surge. When it comes to hurricanes and tropical storms, the wind can send trees crashing into your house or heavy rains might sweep your car away. But near the coast, it’s the surge that poses the greatest threat.
In Annapolis, Isabel was a flood like no one remembered. It reached the chin of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” author Alex Haley’s statue at City Dock, flooding downtown buildings and parts of the Naval Academy. The day after, people explored the submerged blocks by kayak and canoe.
Low-lying neighborhoods from Bowleys Quarters in Baltimore County to Solomons Island in Calvert County were covered in muddy water and, in some cases, repairs took years. It was nothing like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans two years later, but Isabel did cause several billions in damage and killed 51 people across several states.
The East Coast, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico have always been subject to these storms, and the consequences can be far-reaching. In 1857, an American steamer carrying a gold fortune from California sank in a hurricane off the Outer Banks, killing more than 400 people aboard.
The disaster contributed to a global economic crisis and maybe even propelled the nation toward Civil War. There’s a monument to its captain at the academy.
Human-driven climate change has made this worse. The Atlantic has been heating at alarming rates this year, and that heat provides energy for bigger storms. Lee is the 15th Category 5 Atlantic storm since Isabel — half of the most dangerous kind of storms recorded since the advent of satellite weather tracking in the 1960s.
Hurricanes have always had a lock on my imagination.
When I was a kid, my parents moved us into a four-unit hotel on Eighth Street in Ocean City. They only kept it for a season, and soon all seven of us squeezed into a tiny house in a different part of town.
A storm made its way up the coast that summer on Eighth Street and forced the evacuation of Ocean City. My parents packed us into their Rambler station wagon and headed for the bridge. My grandfather, who owned a motel up the beach, refused to leave. Yeah, he was that guy.
On the way out, my dad pulled over to get a glimpse of the violent ocean. I can still taste the salted air crashing into the back seats as he opened the door. I watched his windbreaker, illuminated by the headlights, puff out like a spinnaker around his slim, 5-foot-8 frame as he leaned into the wind.
A minute later, he was back, his black hair jutting out from its normal pompadour wave. He turned and told us he’d spotted a treasure chest in the surf, but it was too far to reach. Yeah, he was that guy.
Agnes flooded the Baltimore Beltway in 1972, and Gloria wrecked the boardwalk in Ocean City 13 years later. In 2012, Superstorm Sandy knocked out power for days for hundreds of thousands across the state.
And there was Isabel.
We evacuated when the storm shoved Fishing Creek up our street. Long after the power went out, police drove slowly through the neighborhood and repeated the words “evacuate now” over a loudspeaker. I waded through hip-deep water to help a neighbor. A garden hose floated by, and I screamed, thinking it was a snake.
When we returned to our house, situated at about 16 feet above sea level, there was no damage, unless you count a line of chunky red bark mulch that had floated over from a neighbor’s yard. It marked the high water line of a once-in-a-century storm. It took four days to get the power back, and in a house on a well, that meant no running water.
Others weren’t so lucky. Isabel did hundreds of millions in damage across Maryland. Eight people died, including three from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by gas-powered generators. The power outage affected over 1 million Marylanders and remains the worst in state history.
The surge flooded the bay with oil, sewage and other pollutants and contaminated thousands of wells. Maryland later estimated that Isabel washed 20 acres of sand out into the bay.
President George W. Bush declared the entire state a disaster area, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up disaster recovery centers in Annapolis and other cities. Some people spent months in FEMA trailers or fought over federal assistance payments and insurance claims for years.
One thing has changed between Isabel and Lee, and that’s information. You can track the forecast and warnings on a smartphone app, and get information directly from the National Hurricane Center, its storm surge unit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite center and the National Weather Service for Washington and Baltimore on social media.
You could follow along as Lee briefly became a Category 5 storm on Friday with 165 mph winds. Monday morning, the winds had calmed, but the expanse of the storm was growing.
I’m not the only one watching to see if Lee makes a dash for the East Coast.
Kevin Simmons is the emergency operations manager for Annapolis. He’s been watching the European forecast model, a highly reliable program run by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.
It showed Lee remaining out at sea in all but a few possible outcomes displayed on a map like strands of spaghetti. Those are the ones to watch.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Simmons said.
If it’s easier to pay attention to the warnings now, not much has changed physically in the 20 years since Isabel flooded Annapolis. There’s work on building flood protection walls, but they are far from complete. Thousands of homes along the water outside the scope of those projects are just as vulnerable. A 7-foot storm surge today would probably look much like it did in 2003.
I think about what I would need to do if severe weather came this way and the possibility that it might be worse than 20 years ago.
I think about Isabel. So, yeah. I’m that guy.
Even if Lee ends up being just another hurricane that passes us by, maybe you should be too.