On September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane between Cape Lookout and Ocracoke Island in North Carolina with winds of 105 mph. The storm tracked northwest through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and into Pennsylvania, causing over $5 billion in damage. The storm became extratropical over Pennsylvania and tracked into Canada.
Isabel was one of the most damaging storms to impact the Middle Atlantic States since Agnes in 1972 and Hazel in 1954. Isabel was comparable to the great Potomac-Chesapeake Hurricane of 1933 in Virginia and Maryland regarding storm surge and damage to the coastline.
In the Washington area, Isabel caused severe tidal flooding and widespread tree damage. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power and some areas were without power for over a week. The tidal flooding in Washington, D.C. exceeded the record set by the Potomac-Chesapeake Hurricane of 1933.
Isabel in the Atlantic Ocean
Hurricane Isabel started as a tropical wave that moved off the coast of Africa on September 1, 2003. It struggled to develop for several days until it achieved tropical storm status on September 6.
The storm strengthened into a hurricane on September 7 and then it reached a rare Category 5 status with peak winds of 165 mph on September 11. Hurricane Isabel’s strength fluctuated as it tracked east-northeast across the ocean and it achieved Category 5 status on three different occasions.
When Isabel approached the coast of North Carolina it encountered cooler waters, dry air and wind shear which helped to reduce its strength to a Category 2 hurricane. The storm made landfall near Ocracoke Island as a Category 2 hurricane but it packed quite a punch for areas well inland from the coast.
Isabel in North Carolina
Hurricane Isabel slammed into the Outer Banks of North Carolina as a Category 2 hurricane. Isabel produced extensive damage across eastern North Carolina. The loss was in excess of $450 million.
The damage was heaviest along the coastline where the storm surge and strong winds damaged thousands of houses. During the storm, Hatteras Island in North Carolina was breached, creating an inlet that was later named, Isabel Inlet. During the storm, over 700,000 residents lost power in North Carolina.
The tree damage and tree loss in eastern North Carolina was staggering. In some areas near the Albemarle Sound, it appeared that one out of every two or three trees was blown down by the storm.
Isabel in Virginia
Governor Mark Warner stated that Isabel is “probably the worst storm in a generation.” Most of the state experienced varying degrees of tree damage and the eastern portions of the state experienced record-breaking tidal flooding and damaging surf.
The damage at Colonial Beach was extremely bad and it rivaled the damage produced by Hurricane Hazel. In Old Town Alexandria, the storm surge on the Potomac River topped the record set back in 1933 by the Potomac-Chesapeake Hurricane. The flooding swamped the historic Torpedo Factory and many areas around King Street. Along Alexandria’s waterfront, streets were navigated by canoe and kayak.
During the height of the storm, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel recorded a wind gust of 87 mph. Norfolk recorded a peak wind gust of 83 mph and Quantico, Virginia recorded a gust of 78 mph. Rainfall was heaviest in western Virginia where Sherando, Virginia in Augusta County received over 20″.
In Northern Virginia, power outages were widespread. In Fairfax County, the Fairfax County Water Authority lost power to four processing plants and many neighborhoods found that their taps ran dry for a day.
Isabel in Maryland
Tides ran five to eight feet above normal along the Chesapeake Bay which swamped Baltimore and Annapolis with record tides. In Annapolis, the tide reached 7.58 feet above normal which broke the record set by the Hurricane of 1933. At the United States Naval Acedemy, water filled hallways and classrooms.
Record tides flooded Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and historic Fells Point. Clusters of condominiums and stores appeared to be islands surrounded by the water of the Chesapeake Bay.
Strong winds across much of the state of Maryland downed thousands of trees. Patuxent Naval Air Station recorded a wind gust of 69 mph and Baltimore recorded a gust of 55 mph. Hundreds of transformers (or transformer fuses) were witnessed to explode in the night sky with brilliant bursts of white, blue, and green light.
Isabel in Washington, D.C.
In Washington, the peak wind gust was recorded at 71 mph by the National Academy of Science. At Reagan National Airport, the peak wind gust reached 58 mph.
Within the city, over 1,500 trees fell, many landing on homes and cars. At the White House, a tree fell in the front garden.
Tidal flooding occurred at the Washington Navy Yard and the water level reached a record 11.3 feet above normal at the Wisconsin Avenue gauge which exceeded the record set by the Hurricane of 1933.
My Isabel recollections
It was about 11 p.m. on September 18 when I started to hear the trees crashing to the ground near my Oakton, Virginia home. The roar of the wind was unrelenting and about every 15 to 20 minutes I could hear a limb or tree snap. It reminded me of my childhood memory of Tropical Storm Agnes, but with many more snapping and crashing trees.
I knew that the loudest sounds of trees crashing to the ground were occurring directly in my yard. I strained to look out the windows to see which trees had fallen. There were limbs and branches strewn across the ground, but in the darkness, I could not discern individual trees. The power was out and I chose to wait for morning to assess the damage.
When I finally went to sleep in the basement, I hoped that our family’s favorite tree, the rope swing tree, was still standing. It was a favorite of the neighborhood. The tree was located on a hill in my backyard, next to a small soccer field. It was used by many of the kids in the area.
In the light of morning, I surveyed the damage. Three trees were on the ground in my yard and every road out of my neighborhood was blocked by fallen trees.
I quickly learned that our rope swing tree had fallen victim to Isabel’s winds. I took some time to photograph my kids one last time with the swing and their favorite tree.
By mid-morning, some of my neighbors organized themselves into small groups with chain saws and they began to clear the neighborhood roads.
I was fortunate that I had two neighbors who helped me cut and remove the fallen trees that landed in my yard.
It took two days of hard work to cut up and clear the downed trees in my backyard. We stacked rows of firewood along side of the road that seemed to span at least 50 yards. The stacks of wood lasted for many weeks but eventually disappeared.
In my neighborhood, power was out for four days and the water was cut off for one day. We lost most of our perishable food and we cooked with a propane grill.
Isabel was a very memorable experience, but not in a fun way like Snowmageddon. I can handle another Snowmageddon but not another Isabel. Once is enough.
What are your recollections of Isabel?