WASHINGTON – The Category 3 hurricane’s 120 mph counterclockwise winds move up the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, sending storm surges to flood Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, destroy resort towns along the Eastern Shore, and further erode the cliffs of the Western Shore.
Today, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and two years after Tropical Storm Isabel’s storm surges caught officials and residents off guard, Maryland’s worst-case scenario is more real to emergency planners.
Many express cautious confidence in their ability to handle such a natural disaster, while maintaining being prepared isn’t the same as being ready.
“The best you can ever do is expect something unexpected is going to happen,” said Jeff Welsh, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
Michael Kearney is a professor of geography and specialist in coastal science at the University of Maryland. He said “the lower bay would be wiped out and the upper bay would be really flooded,” in such a case.
A hurricane that strikes Maryland does not have to reach the Category 4 strength of Hurricane Katrina, which drowned New Orleans and cut a destructive path across the Gulf region on Aug. 29, to cause significant damage, Kearney said. It could stay in the Chesapeake Bay just long enough to cause storm surges higher than 8 feet, the maximum surge that Isabel produced when it hit Maryland on Sept. 18, 2003.
Officials underestimated the breadth of the surges Isabel caused, Welsh said. The computer program that forecast the storm surges didn’t have enough information on the bay, he said. The program has since been refined.
“Last time everyone thought, ‘We dodged that bullet.'” Welsh said.
Disaster planners tried to learn from Isabel with a 33-page assessment of how state agencies responded to the storm. Released last September by the Maryland Department of Planning, the report is largely positive, but some criticisms parallel issues emerging from the Gulf Coast — poor communication among federal, state and local agencies, haphazard organization of resources and the need to educate residents, especially about flood insurance.
Communication among agencies is better since the report’s release, Welsh said, and MEMA is now more proactive and shaking its reputation for aloofness, he said.
Some local officials are less secure in their relationship with the federal government after seeing images of residents stranded in New Orleans for days without food and water.
“I’ve lost confidence in FEMA,” said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan recently. “If we can’t count on them, what do we have to do . . . to pick up the slack.”
Duncan and other regional officials said they are revisiting their own emergency plans, particularly evacuating residents, a procedure sharply criticized in Katrina relief efforts.
“If we don’t help the people who are the most vulnerable then we’re not really helping anybody,” said Jacqueline Brown, Prince George’s County chief administrative officer.
On the Eastern Shore, emergency planners already know they are vulnerable to Mother Nature’s whims.
“Our primary objective is to get people out of harm’s way in a timely fashion,” said Richard “Buzzy” Bayles, Ocean City emergency management planner. “We can always rebuild a building, but we can’t do anything to get someone’s life back.”
Evacuating the town is a part of its longstanding emergency plan, Bayles said. One option, he said, includes making Route 90 a two-lane westward route out of the town.
Ocean City’s population swells to 320,000 during summer weekends, coinciding with the start of the hurricane season. The number decreases steadily after Labor Day, often when hurricanes occur more frequently.
If there was a direct hit, Bayles said damage would be likely. But dune lines and a seawall along the boardwalk are designed to withstand 6-foot-high storm surges and waves up to 20 feet for as long as two-and-a-half days.
Bayles said most of the town escaped unscathed from Isabel two years ago.
According to a report released in August, about 13 percent of the state is vulnerable to a major flood every 100 years, Scott said, the method the federal government uses to determine if residents in an area have to get flood insurance.
“An Assessment of Maryland’s Vulnerability to Flood Damage,” commissioned by the state’s Department of the Environment, puts the economic loss of a major flood at $8.12 billion. Prince George’s, Worcester and Anne Arundel counties make up nearly 40 percent of that total.
Michael Scott, an associate professor of geography and geosciences at Salisbury University, co-wrote the report, which used a computer program developed by FEMA to estimate potential damages.
Scott said many of the most recent studies on Eastern Shore flood plains date to the ’70s. Without up-to-date information, he said, there are some people who now live in flood plains, but who don’t have flood insurance.
With an average height 3 feet above sea level, more than 60 percent of Dorchester County lies within a flood plain, Scott said. And 58 percent of Somerset County is in a flood plain.
“The majority of these counties are under water” if a powerful storm inundates the shore, Scott said.
Too much development can exacerbate the damage.
“Just like if you had a glass of water and you drop an ice cube in the water, it displaces the water,” explained Scott. “Every time you build a building in a flood plain it acts as an ice cube.”
The Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Act limits development to 1,000 feet from the shore and gives local jurisdictions the power to enforce the rule.
But jurisdictions often flout the rule, said George Maurer, a senior planner at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation Maryland office, allowing developers to build closer to the shores.
On average, the number of single-family homes along the Eastern Shore rose nearly 14 percent since 2000, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.
The numbers do not take into account hotels, resorts and other forms of housing, but are a glimpse into the popularity of living on the water.
“The environmental costs can be extreme when we ignore nature and build in areas that are subject to natural disasters. It’s just foolish,” said Maurer.
While the probability of a Category 3-or-better hurricane striking Maryland this year is small, scientists believe the Atlantic is in the early stages of what could be a more active season for the next 40 years. When Hurricane Ophelia made landfall on Wednesday, it became the 15th named storm since the season began and the seventh hurricane.
Kearney said, “The potential for having a calamity is much higher than it was.”