Most of the Baltimore region woke up 20 years ago Tuesday to the screeching sounds of Isabel, a tropical storm that barreled toward Maryland the previous evening and brought consistent hurricane-force winds with gusts nearing 100 mph early that morning.
Isabel touched down in North Carolina the afternoon of Sept. 18 and spun toward Western Maryland. By the time Isabel’s effects were felt in Baltimore that evening, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. But Isabel ended up causing an estimated $5.3 billion in damage nationwide — with National Weather Service approximations of up to $820 million of damage in Maryland alone.
The storm surge recorded in Baltimore — over 7 feet — was a byproduct of the worst Chesapeake Bay flooding in over 70 years. People kayaked on the streets of Fells Point and Annapolis. Baltimore’s mayor at the time, Martin O’Malley, called the Inner Harbor’s waterfront “a beautiful thing, an asset. But sometimes, it turns on you.”
Some of those closer to the water had a rough night — from their homes flooding and the calls to evacuate. More than 2,000 people were evacuated from their homes, including all of Smith Island. Over 470 homes or buildings were destroyed, while more than 3,200 suffered major damage and thousands more also needed repairs, according to the NWS.
Frank Simms had just moved with his wife, Sandra, into a home across the street from his parents on River Drive in Edgemere. He had invited a Sun reporter into his home for coffee as the storm started to hit, with water rising and propane tanks starting to detach from houses. Then the firefighters started asking the street’s residents to evacuate.
The Simms, their children and Frank’s parents made it out in his 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Frank sneaked back to keep the houses in check. He said the home had “fared out pretty well,” as only about 2 inches of water had piled up on his newly installed hardwood floors.
“It looked like a skate park in my house,” he said.
While storms can get bad in Edgemere, Simms said he hasn’t seen anything quite like Isabel in the past 20 years living on River Drive.
“That was definitely the worst,” he said. “They called it a 50-year storm. Hopefully, I won’t see another one.”
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The aftereffects were prominent — some, who had their homes destroyed by Isabel, lived in emergency trailers for months. Businesses had to close, either temporarily or permanently. Some things people took for granted, like heating, ventilation and air conditioning, were swept away. Over a million utility customers throughout the state lost power, some for days or weeks.
Sam Lewis and his wife, Laura, were engaged the year before and had picked out Sept. 27, 2003, as their wedding day — they planned on marrying at the U.S. Naval Academy, Sam’s alma mater, because the Annapolis Marriott had already been booked. As word of the oncoming storm began to appear in the news, the couple were “afraid we’d be out at sea” on their wedding day, he said.
They called family members ahead of time in a “total panic” — and when Isabel hit, the storms washed out Annapolis City Dock. The Marriott closed due to flooding, but the academy’s chapel was open by the next week. There were some signs of flooding on the stone chapel, but most significantly, there was no air conditioning.
“It was a nice day, but it was hot,” Lewis said.
Insurance troubles after the storm kept people waiting for a check to make repairs, if the cash ever came. Some residents were able to get government funds as the 18-month period following the storm was set to expire.
The Resilience Authority of Anne Arundel County and Annapolis, a county organization that supports infrastructure projects intended to mitigate the consequences of climate change, recently secured $20 million for those “resilience projects,” county and city leadership said Friday. The federal, state and local funds will go to projects that address coastal flooding and shoreline erosion while supporting beach restoration, green space development and the conversion of the county’s vehicle fleet to electric.