WASHINGTON – Scientists assure Marylanders that there is a softer side to Floyd, the storm that swept across the state Thursday leaving five people injured and 660 homeless.
“Unless conditions for the last part of the year are really bad, we are out of the drought in Maryland,” because of Floyd, said U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Harry Lins. “It was a dramatic change.”
There will be other long-term positive effects from Floyd, scientists said: It brought fresh water to a salty Chesapeake Bay, delivered oxygen to streams and created bird-nesting sites, among other benefits.
A complete assessment of Floyd’s damages will be known within days, said Maryland Emergency Management Agency spokesman Quentin Banks. In the meantime, scientists are looking to its positives.
The most obvious benefit is the end to the drought. Along with winds of 50 to 60 mph, Floyd dropped 5 to 8 inches of rain on the state, Banks said.
Where 64 percent of the 23 stream gauges monitored by the USGS in Maryland recorded water levels below normal at the beginning of the week, only about 20 percent reported below-average flow after the storm. All of the below-average measurements were in Garrett and Allegany counties in the far western end of the state, which felt little of the full force of Floyd.
Three of the stream gauges reported record highs after Floyd, Lins said. A station in the Howard County town of Savage registered 7,000 cubic feet per second by Thursday night, compared to 35 cubic feet per second two days earlier.
The deluge of fresh water will also help the Chesapeake, where the drought had doubled salinity in some areas. Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist Rob Nelson said the Baltimore Harbor, for example, had salt levels up to 18 parts per 1,000 this year, compared to normal levels of 5 to 10 parts per 1,000. Fresh water from the storm pushed the salinity down to normal levels, he said.
Besides drawing bluefish and dolphin higher in the bay than normal, salty water allows jellyfish and some types of oyster diseases to thrive.
While the water from Floyd carries potentially harmful elements, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, it will also bring vital oxygen and stir up stagnant portions of streams. That can help prevent the growth of several harmful microorganisms that advance in oxygen-poor conditions.
Fish deaths in tributaries and creeks of the Pocomoke and the Patapsco rivers this summer were attributed to poor oxygen levels in the waters, said Nelson.
USGS biologist Michael Erwin said some shorebirds like terns, oyster catchers and black skimmers, almost depend on a hurricane like Floyd to create nesting areas. He said those birds need to nest in sand bars or sandy islands, rarer now due to man-made structures like dams, but severe storms cover areas with sand and wash away grass and shrubs.
Floyd will also help other birds that nest in younger, earlier vegetation.
“[Hurricanes] set back the forest, so to speak,” said USGS biologist Joe Myers. Birds such as the painted bunting, a declining species of songbird that breeds in North Carolina, and the white-eyed vireo will benefit, he said.
A hurricane can also kill bird predators such as raccoons and foxes, which have been overabundant in Maryland and other Atlantic regions, Erwin said.
“It’s hard for people not based in science to think about a hurricane as beneficial, but they really are,” he said.