No other weather event compares to the sheer size and power of a mature hurricane. The Washington area is vulnerable to hurricanes and tropical storms that strike the southeast and mid-Atlantic coast and the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Fortunately for Washington, the hurricane threat — particularly the risk of intense hurricanes — decreases north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and west of the Chesapeake Bay. While the remnants of tropical systems impact our area frequently, almost every year, it’s fairly uncommon to have a strong hurricane directly impact our local region.
With that said, the Washington area has experienced a number of damaging hurricanes and tropical storms over the past century. Below is a list of what I consider to be the Washington, D.C. area’s top five most damaging and impactful tropical systems.
Read below for Washington’s top five most impactful tropical systems.
#1. The Powerful Hurricane of 1896
The Hurricane of September 29, 1896, was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to impact the Washington area. The storm buffeted the area with hurricane-force winds, causing extensive damage throughout the city and producing twelve fatalities.
The powerful hurricane slammed into the western coastline of Florida during the night of September 28-29, sweeping away the tiny village of Cedar Key, Florida. The storm moved northward, reaching south-central Georgia during the morning of September 29. The storm produced extensive damage in both Gainesville, Florida and Savannah, Georgia, where “nearly every structure was damaged.” There were sixty-eight fatalities in Florida, with an additional 25 deaths reported in Georgia.
During the daylight hours of September 29, the tropical storm moved through the Carolinas. By evening, the storm reached southern Virginia, then curved to the left and raced to the north at over 50 mph. In Washington, the southeast wind suddenly jumped from 30 mph to hurricane-force late in the evening of September 29. For the next two hours, the wind was “unparalleled in this part of the country, spreading destruction in every direction.” Telegraph wires and city buildings began to succumb to the strong winds. Tree limbs, flying timbers and tin roofs went rocketing through the air. Slate shingles were torn from the tops of houses and carried upon the wind “like birds.” Thousands of trees fell – many were snapped off 10-15 feet above the ground. Very few properties escaped having windows blown in or shutters torn off. Many major streets in the downtown area were blocked by fallen debris.
#2. The Chesapeake/Potomac Hurricane of 1933
The Hurricane of August 23, 1933 is best known for its huge tidal surge up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River. The hurricane tracked northwest through the Atlantic, passing south of Bermuda on August 21. It made landfall at Nags Head at 4:00 a.m. on August 23, with a central pressure of 28.50 inches. The storm then tracked between Norfolk and Richmond to just west of Washington at 7:00 p.m. on August 23. In Washington, the storm produced 50-mph winds, dropped 6.18 inches of rain, and caused the pressure to fall to 28.94 inches.
The hurricane produced extensive tidal flooding of the Potomac River. A train crossing the Anacostia River was swept off its tracks by the floodwaters, killing ten people. In addition, four people drowned in their cars on the Washington-Baltimore Road when the Little Patuxent River went over its banks. An amusement park in Colonial Beach, located on the Potomac River, was completely swept away. In Alexandria, the Torpedo Factory and the Ford Motor Company were under six feet of water. The Washington-Richmond Highway was submerged under ten feet of water near Alexandria, Virginia, and Bolling Air Force Base was inundated by water up to five feet deep. A total of eighteen fatalities were recorded in the Washington area as a result of the storm.
#3. Hurricane Hazel – Washington’s Strongest Wind, October, 1954
Hurricane Hazel holds legendary status in North Carolina, Virginia, and Washington as one of the most severe hurricanes to hit the region. At landfall, Hazel was a strong category 4 hurricane, with a central pressure of 27.70 inches, sustained winds of 135 mph, and wind gusts over 150 mph. Landfall occurred on the morning of October 15, 1954 between Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and Wilmington, North Carolina. When Hazel hit the coast, she was speeding north at around 30 mph. Several beach communities in North Carolina were “swept clean” by wind and waves, with virtually nothing left standing.
During the daylight hours of that Friday, Hazel continued to gain forward speed as she continued her damaging rampage through central North Carolina and Virginia. By the time the hurricane reached Fairfax, Virginia, the center had accelerated to an astonishing speed of 60 mph. Hazel’s unusually quick movement allowed the storm to arrive in the Washington area while its winds were still above hurricane force. The highest gust recorded at National Airport was 98 mph at 5:05 p.m. on October 15, a record that still stands today.
As the ragged, elongated eye of Hazel passed over Northern Virginia, most areas noted a brief calm. At that time, a pressure of 28.80 inches was recorded at National Airport. As the eye of Hazel moved away, a terrific squall hit from the northwest with torrential rain and winds of 60 mph. By mid-evening, the skies cleared as the wind rapidly subsided.
In Washington, the rainfall was not particularly heavy. Only 1.73 inches of rain fell during the storm. A drought had been in progress and the rain was considered welcome. During the height of the storm, the rain was quite light with only a warm mist occurring during peak winds. However, the raging southeast winds caused water to back up on the Potomac and spill out of its banks in several locations. Many riverfront buildings were flooded in Alexandria, and Route 1 and Mt. Vernon Highway were inundated. In addition, floodwaters up to five feet in depth covered Hains Point. Dozens of small craft harbored at Potomac marinas were sunk or swamped by the wind and wave action.
Wind damage in Washington and surrounding areas was extensive. In D.C. alone, at least a half-dozen buildings were partially or totally unroofed by the winds, while others sustained damaged or crumbled walls. Countless trees were ripped apart or felled, blocking streets, crushing houses, smashing cars, and cutting power lines. In the city, nearly every streetcar line was blocked, due to fallen trees and limbs, forcing sanitation employees to work double shifts after the storm to clear the debris. On the Capitol grounds, twenty trees fell, and at the White House, two trees were blown down.
In the immediate Washington area, 39 injuries were reported, with most injuries occurring from falling trees and shattering glass. Eight fatalities were reported in Maryland and twelve in Virginia. Over 400,000 local residents lost power.
#4. Tropical Storm Agnes — Historic Flooding, June 1972
Tropical Storm Agnes produced monumental rainfall in the Washington area and created some of the worst flooding ever to engulf the region. Agnes began as a tropical depression near the Yucatan Peninsula on June 15. By June 17, Agnes strengthened into a minimal hurricane with 75 mph winds as it trekked slowly northward across the southeast Gulf. Her intensity changed little until landfall was made on the Gulf Coast near Tallahassee, Florida, on June 19. Winds of 60 to 80 mph were reported at landfall.
After landfall, Agnes rapidly weakened. The circulation center moved northeast over land to near Florence, South Carolina, on the morning of June 21. Agnes then moved across eastern North Carolina and tracked north-northeast, toward the Virginia Capes.
In the Washington area, occasional heavy showers began around mid-afternoon of June 21, accompanied by a light northeast wind. During the evening hours, a constant deluge occurred punctuated by nearly continuous lightning and thunder. In a five-hour period nearly five inches of rain fell at National Airport. During the downpour, winds backed to northwest and strengthened to tropical storm force, reaching sustained speeds of 43 mph at National Airport, with gusts as high as 49 mph. Trees and branches fell throughout the area and wires snapped in the gale, cutting power and phones for tens of thousands of homes. However, it was the rain, not the wind that caused nearly all of the death and destruction.
At National Airport, Agnes’ 24-hour rainfall total of 7.19 inches nearly broke the all-time record of 7.31 inches set in 1928. Generally, storm totals ranged from 6 inches in the eastern suburbs to as high as 16 inches in Chantilly, Virginia (located in western Fairfax County). Dulles Airport received a storm total of 13.65 inches of rain. In Wheaton, Maryland, the rainfall exceeded one foot.
In Virginia, portions of nearly every major artery were closed due to flooding, including Routes 29-211, Route 7, Route 1, Interstate 66 and Interstate 95. Countless secondary roads were likewise affected. A bridge on Route 1 in Woodbridge, Virginia was swept away. At least a dozen other bridges were reported damaged. Flooding was particularly severe in Herndon, Centreville, Manassas Park, Occoquan, and Clifton, Virginia. Some towns were virtually isolated.
In Washington, Rock Creek Parkway was closed as abandoned cars were strewn along its length. Likewise, Canal Road and the Whitehurst Freeway were closed, as were parts of Maine Avenue and Independence Avenue.
The most tragic aspect of this event was the loss of sixteen people in the Washington area who were swept to their deaths in the swirling floodwaters. Most of these drownings involved motorists that were trapped in automobiles.
#5. Hurricane Isabel, September 2003
Isabel was “probably the worst storm in a generation” as described by Virginia’s Governor Mark Warner. The storm uprooted trees across much of Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. Tidal areas experienced flooding at record or near-record levels.
Hurricane Isabel formed west of the Cape Verde Islands on September 6, 2003. By September 7, Isabel had strengthened into a hurricane.
Steady intensification occurred as Isabel tracked in a west-northwest direction. By September 11, Isabel had reached Category 5 status, with peak winds of 160 mph. Fortunately, after September 14, Isabel weakened.
Isabel made landfall on the North Carolina coast in the early afternoon on September 18, between Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. At the time of landfall, Isabel had weakened to a Category 2 storm. The strongest winds recorded on land were slightly over 100 mph. The lowest pressure record at landfall was 957 millibars.
After landfall, Isabel continued on its northwest path at 20-25 mph, its center passing about 30 miles west of Richmond during the evening hours and over western Maryland before daybreak on September 19.
In the Washington area, the strongest winds occurred during the night of September 18. Quantico, Virginia recorded a wind of 78 mph. Reagan National Airport clocked a sustained wind of 45 mph, with a peak gust of 58 mph.
Rainfall was generally two to three inches in the immediate D.C. area, but ranged as high as 6-12 inches in the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains, where some flash flooding was noted.
From a historical prospective, Isabel was not nearly windy as Hazel in 1954 (winds reached 98 mph at National Airport), nor was it nearly as wet as Agnes in 1972 (6-12 inches of rain recorded across the metro area.) Nevertheless, Isabel will probably go down as one of the most destructive hurricane to hit the Middle Atlantic region in recent times.
Worth a mention: The Hurricane of August 27, 1667 is considered one of the most severe hurricanes to hit Virginia and the mid-Atlantic. The storm moved across the Lesser Antilles where it devastated St. Christopher and then tracked northwest and struck the outer banks of North Carolina. After making landfall, the storm turned northward and moved up the East Coast. The coastal regions of the Middle Atlantic were hit particularly hard. Several accounts attest to the fury of this great storm. The following account was published in London after the storm:
Sir having this opportunity, I cannot but acquaint you with the relation of a very strange tempest which hath been in these parts which had began August 27th and continued with such violence, that it overturned many houses, burying in the ruins much goods and many people, beating to the ground such as were any waves employed in the fields, blowing many cattle that were near the sea or rivers, into them, whereby unknown numbers have perished, to the great afflication of all people, few having escaped who have not suffered in their persons or estates, much corn was blown away, and great quantities of tobacco have been lost, to the great damage of many, and utter undoing of others. Neither did it end here, but the trees were torn up by the roots, and in many places whole woods blown down so that they cannot go from plantation to plantation. The sea swelled twelve feet above its usual height drowning the whole country before it, with many of the inhabitants, their cattle and goods, the rest being forced to save themselves in the mountains nearest adjoining, while they were forced to remain many days together in great want. The tempest, for the time, was so furious, that it hath made a general desolation, overturning many plantations, so that there was nothing that could stand its fury.
There are a few other notable hurricanes and tropical storms that were considered for the list, including Connie, Diane, and David. Do you remember any other significant hurricanes or tropical storms in our region that should’ve made this list? Comment below....
Source: Hurricanes of the Middle Atlantic States by Rick Schwartz; Washington Weather by Kevin Ambrose, Dan Henry, and Andy Weiss; and http://www.weatherbook.com/isabel.html.