Remnants of Hurricane Dennis -- the storm that battered the mid-Atlantic coast for a week -- drenched the Washington region with bands of rain yesterday, spawning a tornado watch and generally ruining Labor Day weekend plans for millions.
The tropical depression -- the National Weather Service downgraded it from a tropical storm early yesterday -- was still more than 300 miles away in central North Carolina last evening. The Washington area recorded more than an inch of rain as it approached, but the storm's main impact was an oppressively humid day.
Andy Woodcock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, noted that what was left of Dennis "was forecast to move north by today. By right now it was supposed to be in central Virginia, and it's actually in central North Carolina."
But then, "maybe nine days ago we were thinking it was going to get picked up by a cold front and whisked out to sea," Woodcock said.
Rain and mostly cloudy skies in the morning gave way to brilliant sunshine during much of the afternoon. And by nightfall, the daylong tornado watch was finally canceled.
The heaviest rainfalls were in southwestern Virginia, where North Mountain in Rockbridge County recorded more than eight inches in less than six hours. Mills Creek Dam in Augusta County had 7.73 inches of rain yesterday. Several other locations in Virginia's Blue Ridge reported rainfall of four to six inches.
Total rainfall from the storm was 1.25 inches at Reagan National Airport, 1.57 inches at Dulles International Airport and 2.34 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, according to the National Weather Service.
Forecasters said the storm is expected to move out of the Washington area and north through Pennsylvania and on to New England tomorrow after dumping another two inches of rain in the District. The heaviest rains seem likely to be in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where flood warnings are posted.
Yesterday afternoon's high tides brought some flooding along the Potomac River at Hains Point and in Georgetown, prompting officials of the Washington Harbour development at the foot of Wisconsin Avenue to raise the floodgates. More flooding is expected this morning. Minor street flooding, fallen tree limbs and spotty power outages were reported in the District, and city officials said they will monitor flood-prone streets all weekend.
"It will encroach on shops. Water is going to be very close, if not to doors, to those places," National Weather Service meteorologist Dewey Walston said of the Potomac.
The heavy rains also flooded dockside areas in Annapolis.
But it was the prospect of severe weather and torrential downpours, more than actual severe weather, that disrupted even the best-laid weekend plans: Many vacationers stayed away from the Maryland and Virginia beaches, some of which remained closed to swimmers; the annual Labor Day concert at the U.S. Capitol was moved into the Kennedy Center; and attendance at the Maryland State Fair was down 20,000 people a day from last year.
Despite the downpours, area reservoirs are still low, and a drought emergency will continue in Maryland until rainfall and stream flows reach 70 percent of 12-month normal levels.
Susan Woods, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said it would take days and days of rain like this weekend's to make up for the spring and summer deficit. But, she said, "anything you get helps recharge ground water, helps the reservoirs, helps the stream flows."
"We're happy for what we're getting," said Woods the state environmental official.
"It's depressing as heck," said Woods the regular person, who canceled an Ocean City, Md., vacation this weekend because of Dennis's rains.
The rains also wreaked havoc on the roads. On the outer loop of the Capital Beltway near Route 450, heavy rain caused a 19-vehicle pileup that sent six people to area hospitals, Maryland State Police said.
The crash started about 11:30 a.m., when a car traveling north, carrying a couple from Florida, spun out and came to rest facing oncoming traffic, said Trooper Juan Cabrera. Another car slammed into that vehicle, and within minutes, that crash sparked at least five accidents, including one that involved a bus transporting elderly people, Cabrera said.
None of the injuries was life-threatening, but traffic on the Beltway backed up for seven miles, police said, and 30 minutes later, as the rain continued, a truck overturned just across the median, on the inner loop.
In Havre de Grace in northeastern Maryland, four people were seriously injured when a car crossed the median and slammed into an oncoming vehicle, said police, who blamed the rain for the crash.
In general, Maryland officials said that traffic was heavier than anticipated, as people returned early from the beach. In Virginia, where beaches had already been closed, officials reported lighter-than-normal traffic.
On the Eastern Shore, the sun came out in spots, but the rain persisted, and several hotels reported fewer guests than normal.
"We got hammered," said Tom Coveleski, of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol in Delaware. "It was a real wicked downpour, and it chased people off the beach." The rain continued on and off all along the Maryland and Delaware coasts, where a heavy surf advisory remained in effect. Rehoboth swimmers were allowed only knee deep for the second consecutive day; Ocean City had no such restrictions.
In Ocean City, which bore the brunt of Dennis all week, one sign read: "Huff and Puff Dennis. We're still winging it."
In North Carolina, Dennis finally cleared the coast yesterday, relieving residents and emergency officials alike.
In some areas of coastal Carteret County, near Cedar Island where the storm swept ashore Saturday afternoon, roads were washed out and flood waters stood four feet deep. Two state roads in Pamlico County also were impassable, littered with abandoned vehicles, and the county's water system was flooded out.
No serious injuries were reported. But investigators were still trying to determine whether two traffic fatalities in Wilson County on Saturday night were weather-related, said 1st Sgt. Jeff Winstead, of the State Highway Patrol.
"It has been quite a week," said Kathy McGehee, of the state Department of Health and Human Services. "But basically, we just didn't have a lot of damage."
They did get a lot of rain, however. By last night, 6.01 inches of rain had fallen yesterday in the Raleigh-Durham area, and 4.31 inches in Burlington.
In the Washington area, the weekend rain ran counter to the pattern that had endured through most of the summer -- little precipitation on the weekend, and for that matter, little during the week. At Carter Barron Amphitheater on Saturday night, the headliners -- guitarists Lonnie Brooks, Phillip Walker and Long John Hunter -- never made it to the stage of DC Blues Fest '99, which shut down early because of the rain.
Yesterday's Orioles-Indians game was delayed by rain for an hour and a half. Dulles International reported some weather-related delays.
But the rain didn't stop everyone. Visitors who made it to the Maryland State Fair and didn't want to get soaked got to take advantage of a new fair feature: tours given by agricultural students, who taught them the difference between a heifer and a cow (a cow has given birth) and how to tell whether a hen will lay brown or white eggs (look at its earlobes). The rides were closed only for heavy downpours and lightning and thunder.
In The Plains, steers were wrestled and calves were roped as scheduled at the Blue Ridge Rodeo Roundup. As the announcer told the 500 die-hard fans in the audience (they had hoped for 2,000): "Cowboys' workaday tasks are what the rodeo were all about. In the field, you don't stop working when it starts to rain."
Besides, said organizer Rick Franke, "rodeo's more fun in the mud."
And no storm was going to slow down the choir from Mount Mary's Baptist Church, of Chesterfield, S.C. The 34 children and 15 adults drove seven hours Saturday and saw the sights, up and down the Mall, straight through the weekend.
"We came here to enjoy ourselves," declared Aletha Nivens. "So we got our umbrellas and raincoats and went on out and enjoyed ourselves."
Staff writers Jackie Spinner and Vanessa Williams in Washington and Sue Anne Pressley in Nags Head, N.C., contributed to this report.
Rainfall (over 36 hours to 6 p.m. yesterday)
Reagan National: 1.25"
Saturday, 1 p.m.: Tornado damages nursing homes, apartment buildings in Hampton. More than 12 people injured, more than 1,000 displaced.
Saturday, 11 a.m.: Tornado in Chesapeake.
Wednesday: Hatteras Island cut in half by an 8-foot-deep channel carved by Dennis where the island is only D-mile wide.
Friday, 4:30 p.m.: Eye of Dennis crosses Core Bank just south of Cedar Island; winds of 70 mph.
Yesterday: Carteret County, near Cedar Island, roads washed out; flood waters four feet deep.
Aug. 30: Two people die in car crash in Onslow County blamed on poor visibility from wind and rain.