Chesapeake storms have left their mark on landscape throughout history
Storms have rolled across the Chesapeake from time immemorial - since the end of the last ice age, when the Atlantic began inundating the Eastern Seaboard.
Native peoples bore them with considerable awe, having no perspective on their source or subsequent travel, save the wisdom of tribal elders who had seen these rampages over a lifetime, and heard of them from previous generations. They even anticipated storms: archaeologists have discovered that the entryway of their sapling and bark dwellings pointed away from the direction of storm winds.
The word "hurricane" originated in Central America. According to meteorologist Chris Landsea, it seems to have been derived from the Mayan god Huracan, "who blew his breath across the chaotic waters and created dry land and later destroyed the men of wood (trees?)with storm and flood."
The concept was orally transmitted throughout the Caribbean, but the word was neither heard nor used by Chesapeake Indians until Europeans introduced it.
Of course, storms of great severity need not be, nor have they always been, hurricanes. As spring arrives, especially after heavy snows have built up on mountains west of the Bay, rainstorms of long duration coupled with melting can cause immense flooding.
One could speculate how great these might have been during the time when only the Native Americans lived here, when forest and almost all soils were intact, but only a few pieces of data exist to help us.
Capt. John Smith, during his 1607 exploration of the upper James River, observed marks on the trees and estimated that the maximum floods would have been 8 feet higher than the water's level at that time. (It is believed that the early 1600s experienced a multiyear drought, so the more typical river rises could have been higher.)
Later, when Smith and his fellow explorers went up the Nansemond River, they spoke of having to cut trees that had fallen or been blown across the relatively narrow channel, which suggests violent winds toppling riverside trees.
William Byrd I, Virginia planter and historian, wrote about a massive flood that swept down the James River on April 26â€“27, 1685. The waters, according to Byrd, rose three feet higher than ever before. The flood swept away his tobacco plantings and fences. The river peaked a few days later, flooding the first floor of his home, Belvidere, in what is now Richmond.
Another flood hit the James River in 1724, when John Custis, a Williamsburg planter, wrote "we had such a violent flood of rain and prodigious gust of wind that the like I do not believe ever happened since the universal deluge." I suspect his data is a bit uncertain there.
From June through November, many of the storms that influence our weather originate in low-pressure waves that develop off Africa's northwest coast, or, later in the season, form in the Caribbean. These tropical storms follow a characteristic pattern of west to northwest travel and typically re-curve, like a spinning top on the face of the earth, turning north, then eastward, out into the Atlantic, where they eventually expire. Many of these paths leave storms curving along or inside the Atlantic Coast. They contain vast amounts of tropical moisture in the immense storm cloud walls, which, when they come ashore, is dumped on the landscape.
A glimpse of Atlantic hurricanes in the early 1600s comes from accounts of mariners who survived the experience at sea. The Sea Venture, en route to Virginia, was wrecked on Bermuda in 1609. After a harrowing 11-month adventure, its crew and passengers, including the colony's new governor, arrived in Virginia. (See "Past is Prologue," May 2000.)
In 1649, Col. Henry Norwood's near-dismasted and sinking ship made it to one of Delmarva's barrier islands, where he and other passengers were abandoned by the ship's crew. They were saved by Native Americans, who brought them to Eastern Shore plantations. (See "Past is Prologue," January-February, 2004.)
Historian Pierce Middleton described in his book, "Tobacco Coast, a Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era," the Chesapeake's first then-called "Hurry-Cane," which struck in August, 1667: "the hurricane itself, which lasted 24 hours, began at the northeast, gradually backed to the north and finally to southeast" with heavy rains causing unprecedented floods in the upper rivers. One contemporary, Phillip Ludwell, estimated that 10,000 structures were destroyed. Fields were flooded and corn torn to shreds; 60â€“80 percent of the crops are thought to have been lost. Hail the size of turkey eggs pelted fruit to mush and even killed cattle. On the Bay, ships were dragged ashore and estuaries rose to a "destructive height."
Torrential rains in 1769, also called "a most dreadful hurricane" by the Virginia Gazette, leveled houses and destroyed crops. One ship, her anchors threatening to drag and set her ashore, was saved only by the crew cutting away her masts and rigging, to reduce windage. The gale drove four other ships ashore in the York River, where the decking of the town pier was carried away.
Today, we associate landmark storms with their names: Carol, Hazel, Agnes and so on. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, naming tropical cyclones started early in the 20th century with an Australian forecaster who applied to storms the names of political figures whom he disliked. It was said that he could thus talk with impunity about so-and-so's "mindless destruction" or "aimless wandering about the Pacific."
During World War II, forecasters often named storms after ex-girlfriends. In 1964, both male and female names were used to communicate with the public about Pacific storms.
For a long time, the U.S. Weather Bureau used the phonetic alphabet letters in sequence - Able, Baker, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and so on - to name Atlantic storms. Beginning in 1953, Atlantic storms were only given female names. That changed in 1979 when the National Weather Service began using names from both genders.
Agnes was just a tropical storm when it arrived in the Chesapeake Basin in June 1972, very much out of the usual autumnal context of these events. Like many storms before and since, Agnes deposited vast amounts of rain on the region, especially in the Susquehanna Basin, where rainfalls of a more than a foot were unprecedented in the lifetimes of most residents.
Agnes' impact was especially damaging, not only because of the sediment layer and nutrient loads deposited in the Upper and Middle Chesapeake, but for its timing; the storm occurred right at the growth peak for submerged aquatic grasses and at spawning time for many fish and shellfish.
The severe multiyear ecosystem effects Agnes imposed on the Chesapeake, an estuary already stressed by many decades of abuse, provided a wake-up call for regional and national politicians. We might even credit Agnes for the subsequent Chesapeake Bay Program restoration efforts.
This September, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee struck the Chesapeake region. My scientific colleagues will study and report the long-term effects of these two prolonged and virtually conjoined events. My own perspective, however, is more than that of a dispassionate historian.
This summer, I had moved my boat Nimble north to the New Jersey coast, and went up to secure its safety as Irene approached. My wife, Nancy, remained at Osborn Cove, MD, to hold down the fort.
Our soils had been seriously loosened by the rare East Coast 5.8 earthquake and several inches of rain had saturated them as well. As Irene passed, she spun off a tornado or microburst that roared up the middle valley on our land, cutting a wide swath through our old growth woodland.
My sentinel sycamore, more than 19 feet around the base, came down like a hammer, tearing up a root pad 15x20 feet from the valley floor. Nancy said its crash caused both her and our two cats to jump. Every tree in the lower valley was flattened and the blast "rotated" to fell 14 major trees from several directions, including several poplars more than a century old.
Scores of other trees were felled. About 20 neighbors - Bless them! - with chain saws and strong arms worked many hours to clear roads and lanes. When I returned, as the last of the storm abated, I found limbs through the roofs of two buildings, my property strewn with debris and a once-treasured habitat that will never look the same in my lifetime.
I became desperate to return Nimble to the relative security of her Chesapeake cove, and as Lee finally abated, set off into the Atlantic with remnants still dumping rain. Rounding Cape May, NJ, I headed up Delaware Bay under a bright moon at 4 a.m. My trip up Delaware Bay and down half of the Chesapeake gave me a firsthand opportunity to view the impact of these two successive storms.
At Ship John Lighthouse (roughly at Annapolis' latitude and 28 nautical miles north of the Cape May Canal) I began to encounter opaque muddiness in the already turbid Delaware Bay. Soon, the debris began. The small stuff Nimble pushed aside, but pieces 2 or more feet long could get under the hull and damage the propeller, disabling my vessel as we raced along with the favoring tide. This was a constant worry for the next 24 hours.
I was struck by the quantity of human-generated debris, but assigned this imbalance to Philadelphia and its vast metropolitan area, barely over the horizon upstream. An immense wrack-line of debris was grounded on Reedy Island, just below the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal entrance, the conduit that would return me home. The C&D receives water tidally from both ends, but I was surprised how little debris had siphoned in. The same was true once in the Chesapeake's Elk River until I reached Turkey Point, where the effects of the vast Susquehanna Basin began.
Here, the water turned the color of milk chocolate, giving the light reflected from the miles-wide Bay a strange hue. Crabbers had pulled their pots to keep logs from sweeping them away, and pound netters had triced the net pockets to save them as well.
A friend once told me that really big storms in West Virginia were called "trash movers," because they cleared the gullies and ravines. A storm's "first flush" takes out the largest quantities of materials, which had happened above and over Conowingo Dam in the last few days.
By Sept. 13, as I transited, there was a lot of debris in the Upper Bay. Much of it was floating mats of uprooted underwater vegetation in which Vallisneria, Myriophyllum and some coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) were visible as I swept by. Most noticeable were the long, bright green blades of Vallisneria which sometimes seemed to be holding together aggregations of sticks and other plant material. An immense mass of good waterfowl forage was going unused, swept down the estuary by the storm.
I encountered concentrated areas of debris, then the Bay would open up to scattered logs. Ralph Eshelman, former director of the Calvert Marine Museum, called me to describe vast debris fields he'd seen from the Bay Bridge on Sept. 11.
I stopped Nimble a couple of times on the Sassafras River, starting near Worton Point, to measure transparency with the coastal oceanographer's standard Secchi disk, a flat disk about 8 inches in diameter, painted with alternate white and black quadrants. The disk was barely 3 cm below the surface when I lost sight of it, about 1/23 of what one would normally expect here in the summer. I noted as the day's wind died, that the quiet water allowed sediment to begin settling out and left a layer of clearer water at the very surface-this is what sedimentation is, after all. It was like looking down on the top of "brown clouds" several centimeters below the surface.
Running out of daylight, I anchored overnight in Fairlee Creek till sunrise assured enough light to avoid the many obstacles to come.
A few miles north of the Bay Bridge, there were significant "fronts" of debris too dense to navigate through - in some cases hundreds of feet long. As I sailed laterally to go around them, there was a visual change in water quality, first as a reflective difference, which upon closer inspection revealed a sharp front between highly turbid and clearer water. I saw a sharp demarcation like this on the Patuxent after Agnes back in 1972, but never encountered it again until this storm.
From there on, the fields of debris, different from "fronts" or lines athwart the Bay, became more extensive. These were concentrated areas of debris. Around them the Bay would open up to scattered logs and mats of SAV. This required very intense piloting and I was, this day, more than 11 hours at the tiller.
Tree roots and trunks set adrift are expected as natural consequences from these storms, but I was amazed at the proportion that had at some point been cut with chain saws long in the past. The direct human debris was shameful to see: flip-flops, children's toys, battery boxes, boat parts, barrels, automobile tires on rims, foam-filled traffic control devices, cups, dental floss picks, untold plastic water bottles and likely millions of Styrofoam fragments. I come away feeling our greedy creation of impervious surfaces, butchering of woodland for development and these careless contributions of effluvia from our wasteful society make us deserving of whatever disasters are claimed in the press.
Debris became less a hazard to navigation as I passed the Choptank River, where the inland traveling Lee had had less of an impact. The water from that basin was also clearer, with the Secchi disk visibility rising from about 13.5 cm to 50 cm. This was the case for other tributaries not subject to the heaviest rains. The Bay was still wholly fresh to the taste all through this passage south. But well south of the Sharps Island Light I saw four sportfishing boats. They were almost atop each other and pulling in what appeared to be bluefish about 14 inches long. Strong fighters on light tackle, the blues were being caught in salty water lying beneath the lighter fresh layer.
My course, navigating for Cove Point and entry to the Patuxent, transected the main channel from Eastern to Western Shore. Debris was less common until I reached the middle of the main Bay channel where more appeared. Serious hazards were here. One hundred and four statute miles below the Susquehanna at Havre de Grace, MD, I encountered 200 pound stumps borne south on the tongue of the ending ebb tide.
Testing showed the Bay's surface water was completely fresh in a spot where the depth was 85 feet. Secchi disk visibility was about a half meter.
The Patuxent, like the Choptank, was relatively clear. The Secchi disk showed visibility to 0.5 and 0.7 meters. The river retained about half its pre-storm salinity six days after the last of Lee had passed.
My story ends, but the hard process of repairing, clearing massive fallen logs and debris will continue for years.
- Category: Heritage + History
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