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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/18/2008

Remembering Hurricane Isabel, Five Years Later

By Steve Tracton

September 19, 2003: After Hurricane Isabel, a man in a canoe paddles through Old Town Alexandria, Va. By Mark Young/The Journal Newspapers.

How do you spell RELIEF? -- all is quiet on the tropical front. For the first time in weeks there are no hurricanes, tropical storms or depressions in the Atlantic or eastern Pacific. After the rapid-fire sequence of storms since mid August -- Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike -- it's time for a breather from tracking developing storms and predicting landfall intensities and impacts. A much-needed break for those in Texas and Louisiana only beginning to recover from Gustav and Ike.

Being the storm fanatic I am, if there are no current threats to deal with, there's always the past to relive. In particular, I've begun reminiscing on Hurricane Isabel, which roared into this region as a tropical storm just five years ago this week. Isabel stands as the most destructive tropical system to ever hit the DC/MD/VA area.

Keep reading for more reminiscing on Isabel. Also, see our full forecast into early next week, NatCast for tonight's game against the Mets, and SkinsCast for Sunday's game against the Cardinals.

Damage from Hurricane Isabel in Washington, D.C. A tree tramples a car at 4th and E streets SE. By Capital Weather Gang photographer Kevin Ambrose.

As documented in the National Hurricane Center's official report, Isabel made landfall near Drum Inlet, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, as a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds, but soon weakened to tropical storm status (sustained winds less than 74 mph) as it proceeded on a northwesterly track through central Virginia to southwest Pennsylvania. On its way, Isabel caused widespread damage in coastal regions of North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. As the storm moved to the northwest, damaging winds extended east as far as Delaware and New Jersey.

Locally, in the Washington-Baltimore region, there was extensive damage from uprooted trees and especially from flooding as rising tides and high winds pushed record storm surges -- 6-8 feet -- into the upper reaches of the Chesapeake Bay near Baltimore, and into the Potomac around D.C. and Alexandria, Va. Combined with the runoff from Isabel's rain, on top of a very wet pattern earlier in September, floodwater inundated many homes, businesses and automobiles.

For a more details on Isabel's local impacts, see this entry from Wikipedia, and "Hurricane Isabel Taught Many Lessons," based on the terrific book by Rick Schwartz, "Hurricanes and the Middle Atlantic States."

That I had a personal run in with Isabel was quite serendipitous. I had been at a meeting in California, from which I was to proceed -- without returning to D.C. -- to another meeting in Montreal. Fate, however, unexpectedly intervened. Unbeknownst to me (and my ticketing travel agent), new regulations required a passport for flights to Canada, which I didn't have with me.

So, what to do? Return home for the passport and proceed from there to Montreal, or forget the meeting and stay around for Isabel? If you believe there was even a moment of indecision, I've got a bridge to nowhere in Alaska -- oops, better not go there -- that is, a bridge over the Grand Canyon for sale.

The flooding near my home from Isabel was quite impressive, as water overtopped the wall along Washington Channel onto, yes, Water Street, from just under I-395 southeast to the, yes, Titanic Memorial (see map). The well known Washington DC Fish Market was inundated, and nearby underground parking garages were flooded with cars bobbing around like toy ducks in a bathtub.

Interior damage from Isabel at D.C. Harbor Patrol headquarters. Courtesy Officer Robert Grooms.

Closer to my home was flooding at headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department's D.C. Harbor Patrol (see map). Photographs taken by Harbor Patrol Officer Robert Grooms show the aftermath. Interior damage (at right) was extensive and required the facility to be rebuilt. The photograph below shows some of the damage on the exterior, with the high-water mark clearly visible just below the windows. Grooms told me he estimates the water reached about 10 feet higher than normal levels.

Exterior damage from Isabel at D.C. Harbor Patrol headquarters. Courtesy Officer Robert Grooms.

I'm sure many of you have interesting stories about living through Isabel. Probably more interesting than my own. Let's hear 'em!

BTW: This weekend is the 70th anniversary of The 1938 hurricane -- described as "the most intense tropical cyclone to strike the United States Atlantic coastline north of North Carolina." I'm not quite old enough to have personal remembrances of this extraordinary weather event, but perhaps some of you are, or have heard stories passed down by parents or grandparents. If so, please pass them along to me at (temporary email address), with pictures if available. I expect to post a compilation of stories next week.

By Steve Tracton  | September 18, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Tracton, Tropical Weather  
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Next: PM Update: Cool Air Reinforcements Arrive


NWS' preliminary extended forecast discussion is indicating that the tropics may become active again next week. [Otherwise we should have mainly dry weather around here.]

Posted by: El Bombo | September 18, 2008 12:20 PM | Report abuse

My local experience was limited - even my basement stayed dry (lived near Landmark Mall in Alexandria then) but my family in Williamsburg experienced far worse. My sister had HUGE oak and gum trees in her yard - lost 3, one of which squashed her car, though none hit her house. The tree removal companies were so backed up it took almost 2 years for the stumps to be removed. My parents live on the Chickahominy River - which experienced flooding on a record level and they were without power for about 2.5 weeks. As we drove to Williamsburg with a load of ice in coolers - I was struck by how bare the ground was in the wooded areas by the side of the road. It looked like all of the leaf litter/pine straw that is usually present had completely washed away.

Posted by: Sue R | September 18, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Our DC-area neighborhoods surrounded by mature trees suffered tremendous damage while newer neighborhoods with small trees had very little damage. I lost three huge trees in my yard and every road out of my community was blocked. Power was out for over 3 days and I lost water for one day. Here's a short photo page I put together after Isabel:

Posted by: Kevin, Capital Weather Gang | September 18, 2008 12:59 PM | Report abuse

In Charlottesville, I lost a tree in my backyard that had us without power for almost a week.

Parents and friends in Williamsburg were without power for almost a week, while a friends parents in Newport News were out for 3 weeks! Family on the Eastern Side of Williamsburg had a 6 foot in diameter tree come crashing through their roof, and that took forever to clean up. You can't imagine how hard it is to get work done when EVERYONE needs work done.

@Sue R
Where on the Chickahominy do they live?

Posted by: Jamie Jones, CapitalWeather Gang | September 18, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

I remember Beach Drive being impassable (not even allowed to cross over the road where Tilden meets Park). Otherwise, damage in Mt Pleasant was limited to branches down, and a few larger trees, which is incredible considering the number of mature trees in this area.
I also know that many of my friends have lived here for 5+ years and have never had a snow day but because of Isabel had a "Hurricane Day".

Posted by: ForTheShorties | September 18, 2008 1:39 PM | Report abuse

My son was eight months old and we were without power for several days. Had to give him a bath in the sink. Clifton got hit very hard as I recall with down trees and power lines everywhere.

The company I was about to work for was without power for almost a week and; as a result, one of my first duties was to install a generator for our offices. Every time a bad storm rolls into town and the power goes out, we are the only office in our building that has power.

Posted by: Greg | September 18, 2008 3:24 PM | Report abuse

We were without power for five days after Isabel. Fortunately the part of Bethesda where I work never really lost power so we ate lunch and often dinner there.

When we drove to Florida the following January, I saw a great many fallen trees just off the interstate from a little south of Ashland, Virginia, all the way to or even beyond Petersburg (on I 85 at that point). This was about where the center of the storm had passed, and also to the right of the center.

I can only imagine what damage Isabel would have caused in the DC area with a category 3 landfall.

Posted by: Storm-petrel | September 19, 2008 5:28 AM | Report abuse

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