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‘Challenge for the folks on the water’: Baltimore-area tides fall short of forecast but elevate enough to cause flood damage

There’s still a mark on the wall of the Pirates Cove Restaurant and Dock Bar in Galesville to represent how high the water rose inside the restaurant during Hurricane Isabel.

The water level was forecast Friday to challenge the record-setting tides of the 2003 storm, and by night owners Michael Galway and Anthony Clarke were getting worried. The West River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, had risen over the docks and flowed into their business — up to 2 feet inside and 3 feet at the outdoor bar.

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“This was the worst one yet,” said Galway, who along with Clarke took over the restaurant in the years since Isabel.

A strong northeast flow pushed the waters in the Chesapeake Bay against its western shore, resulting in significant coastal flooding. The tidal surge set water-level records to Galesville’s south, in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, and came close to historic marks in the Baltimore area.

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The unusual storm front birthed whitecaps in the bay that battered coastal communities Friday before the tide slowly began to recede Saturday, leaving in its wake flood-damaged homes, businesses and infrastructure. As residents and crews cleaned up, Democratic state lawmakers warned the events of the past two days foreshadowed the future under a changing climate.

“This hit the whole county and we are vulnerable to sea level rising, climate change and extreme weather events,” Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat who represents Anne Arundel County, said while surveying downtown Annapolis, which was afflicted by significant flooding, Saturday. “To these businesses I want to tell them to put more sandbags, the flood is coming again.”

Forecasters were monitoring another potentially disruptive high tide Saturday night, as the Baltimore area remained under a coastal flood warning.

The tide at Fort McHenry in Baltimore peaked at 4.92 feet overnight Friday, while the high mark in Annapolis was 4.9 feet, according to the National Weather Service. Both marks came up short of what forecasters expected but were enough for fourth and third-highest levels ever recorded in those locations, marks established during Hurricane Isabel.

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A buoy near Havre De Grace recorded a high tide of 5.59 feet overnight, just shy of the record flood level of 5.8 feet. Meanwhile, the buoy at Solomons Island reached the highest level in its history at 4.82 feet, recorded during Isabel in 2003. In St. Mary’s County, the buoy at Strait’s Point topped out at 4.9 feet, a record.

Gusts of wind in the Baltimore area reached 55 mph, producing near surfable swells of 5 to 6 feet about 15 miles south of the Bay Bridge. The bay, Kevin Witt, a weather service meteorologist said, resembled the ocean at times Friday.

In Anne Arundel County, County Executive Steuart Pittman toured the county Saturday to check in on flood damage.

“The water coming in yesterday was pretty ominous and add another 6 to 8 inches on that at midnight, and we were pretty concerned,” said Pittman, a Democrat.

He and Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat who surveyed Baltimore County’s coast via helicopter Saturday morning, said they were thankful no injuries or fatalities had been reported. In both jurisdictions, the damage assessment process was kicking into gear, anddozens of roads closed by high water as well as downed trees and power lines.

The Annapolis City Dock remains flooded Saturday morning.
The Annapolis City Dock remains flooded Saturday morning. (Kim Hairston)

“A lot of it was frankly yards and roads that were impacted,” Olszewski said. He pointed to Bowleys Quarters and Edgemere asplaces where water may have crept up to houses.

Pittman and Olszewski credited their emergency operations staff for working around the clock — “Unfortunately, we’re getting kind of good at this,” Pittman said — and acknowledged this was a sign of what climate change will bring.

“It’s another reminder of what Hurricane Isabel reminded residents of Baltimore County years ago: That climate change is a real threat to our communities,” Olszewski said.

Annapolis has been near the forefront of discussions of flooding in Maryland and residents there descended upon the downtown area to document this latest episode. City Dock, as well as Compromise and Dock streets, were still underwater Saturday morning.

Joe Davis and his 11-year-old son, Christopher, kayaked down Compromise Street. Davis expressed concerns about the oil slicks and trash they’d come across.

“This is my first time kayaking in a street,” said Davis, an Annapolis resident of 14 years. “It’s pretty surreal.”

A sign warns drivers of high water ahead on Bowleys Quarters Road.
A sign warns drivers of high water ahead on Bowleys Quarters Road. (Barbara Taylor)

Nearby, Walter Dunford swept away debris deposited near his doorstep. He didn’t want the waste getting swept back out in the bay.

Dunford had other things to worry about, too: His family owns souvenir shops downtown, and some had flooded.

“There was definitely a foot inside some of the stores,” he said.

Del. Dana Jones, a Democrat who represents Annapolis, was thinking about businesses as she walked around the city Saturday.

“These last two months with the [tornado] and flooding now, we have been surveying damage too much and it all points to climate change,” Jones said. “I am concerned for the business and how we can be supportive to them.”

Anne Arundel County, which has 530 miles of shoreline, saw piers submerged, breaking some boats free and prompting county fire crews to wrangle runaway vessels, Pittman said.

Republican Gov. Larry Hoganissued a state of emergency Friday evening for all Maryland jurisdictions bordering the bay, the Atlantic Ocean and the Potomac River, which means, Pittman said, “there’s some potential to get direct financial assistance.”

“It’s a real challenge for the folks on the water,” Pittman said.

This rings true at Pirates Cove, where employees were cleaning up Saturday, Clarke said. It’s not just pumping water out of the restaurant, it’s the swelling of doors and the potential of mold growing in the carpet.

The whole place has to be disinfected but they hope to return to business within days.

In the meantime, they’re watching the tide.

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