Isabel, one of Harford's "toughest storms" ever, blew through 15 years ago

The Aegis

Tuesday marked the 15th anniversary of one of the most destructive tropical storms to ever hit Harford County, when Hurricane Isabel brought high winds and a tidal surge that destroyed the Havre de Grace Promenade and stranded many residents living in the county’s low lying areas.

Isabel, by then downgraded to a tropical storm, roared through Harford County late in the afternoon on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2003, and had all but vanished by the next morning.

But in her wake, the storm left hundreds of downed trees and power lines, debris scattered along roads, tens of thousands of houses without power and a million gallons of sewage spilled into Swan Creek in Aberdeen.

"It's just heart-wrenching to see the damage," then-Harford County Executive Jim Harkins said after surveying some of the hardest hit areas. He estimated the damage at some $20 million. He said he would seek state and federal disaster aid.

Unlike the remnants of Hurricane Floyd which hit Harford in 1999, Isabel brought high winds and relatively little rain. Just over 2 inches of rain was recorded in Bel Air.

The wind caused unprecedented storm surges on the Chesapeake Bay that flooded Perryman, Willoughby Beach, Joppatowne and Havre de Grace. Longtime residents of those areas said they had never experienced the tidal surges along the Gunpowder, Bush and Susquehanna rivers, Otter Point Creek and Upper Chesapeake Bay caused by Isabel.

Several people had to be rescued from houses near Concord Point in Havre de Grace and along the upper Bush River. Crews used inflatable watercraft to bring those stranded to safety. Local marinas from Havre de Grace to Joppatowne reported damage to watercraft and piers.

In Havre de Grace, the Promenade, a waterfront boardwalk constructed between 1990 and 1994, literally washed away before people’s eyes.

“Until early that [Friday] morning I thought we had dodged the bullet of the storm," then-Havre de Grace Mayor David Craig would later recall. "It was a pretty helpless feeling. There's not much you can do about it."

“I remember being amazed that Mother Nature could do so much damage,” recalled Aegis editor and reporter Erika Butler, one of several staff members who covered Isabel and her aftermath.

No part of Harford County was spared damage from the flooding, wind, fallen trees and downed power lines.

"This was a lot worse than Floyd, worse than Agnes [in 1972]," then-Norrisville Volunteer Fire Company Chief Bob Yonas said. "As far as wind, this is one of the toughest storms we've had."

The impact from Isabel also hit Perryville Community Park hard. Left with substantial shoreline erosion, town officials opted to remove trees to help prevent any further damage to the park.

By the following Wednesday, Harford County was gradually recovering.

"Havre de Grace was back to its good old beautiful self," Havre de Grace’s Craig said amid sunshine and warm temperatures. "It's a beautiful day, there's not the smell of diesel and if you don't look at the Promenade, you wouldn't know anything happened."

Rebuilding the promenade took a year. The first section, between Concord Point Lighthouse and the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum officially re-opened on April 24, 2004.

The city received $408,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from which it repaid Harford County about $105,000 for the removal of the debris from the destroyed boardwalk. Some of the latter rebuilding work was done by AmeriCorps volunteers.

A year to the day of its destruction, the full length of the Promenade reopened with a ceremonial walk.

"I thought we could bring it back in a year. I didn't know how we were going to do it, but I knew we were going to do it," said the late Bob Lee Geddes, the county parks and recreation official who oversaw original construction of the promenade between 1990 and 1994 and its rebuilding.

Compiled by Allan Vought from Aegis reports.

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