September 27, 2022


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Tropical Storm Agnes: 50 years later, nonetheless the largest story I ever lined

I discovered lots from Tropical Storm Agnes, arguably essentially the most impactful storm to hit the Chesapeake Bay within the a number of thousand years the present estuary has existed.

Not least amongst these classes was the significance of timing. Agnes struck 50 years in the past this June, earlier than I had labored on the Baltimore Solar lengthy sufficient to even get my identify on the entrance web page tales I wrote in regards to the storm. I wasn’t assigned them due to my reportorial abilities; I had an enormous GMC pickup with sufficient clearance to traverse flooded roads.

Half a century later, of the hundreds of articles and several other books I’ve written in regards to the Bay, the largest story I ever dealt with continues to be the one which got here simply a few months into my profession.

For the Bay, it was exquisitely unhealthy timing, seasonally talking. Agnes got here when oysters have been spawning, seagrasses have been flowering, fish have been hatching. Large influxes of freshwater, extending for weeks properly south of the Potomac River, have been lethal to shellfish. Unprecedented volumes of sediment smothered nice swaths of Bay backside, wiping out hundreds upon hundreds of acres of underwater grasses.

“The storm broke all present information, not by trivial percentages however by big multipliers … all dwelling issues within the Bay have been imperiled,” wrote writer James Michener in his 1978 bestselling novel, Chesapeake.

Chesapeake was, in fact, fiction, and within the novel’s timeline “the storm” was the Nice Chesapeake Hurricane of 1886 — however as somebody who reported on Agnes, it was clear to me the place Michener bought the idea for that chapter (Voyage Eleven: 1886).

Agnes on its technique to the Bay appeared innocuous sufficient. Certainly, newspaper readers that fateful week could have been extra intrigued by brief tales a couple of housebreaking of Democratic marketing campaign headquarters on the Watergate residences.

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Shifting north from Yucatan, Agnes had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the point it hit Florida’s panhandle June 19. Its winds would by no means prime 45 mph.

However the rain, oh my. Starting on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 21, Agnes would completely soak Maryland and Virginia, transfer via Pennsylvania after which double again and stall, dropping sufficient water throughout a lot of the Bay’s six-state watershed to boost the water degree in the entire estuary by about 2 ft, had there been a dam at its mouth.

Agnes drowned greater than a dozen motorists in Washington’s Rock Creek Park and flooded 200 blocks of downtown Richmond. It blasted down Baltimore’s Jones Falls with such sudden fury that it drowned three youngsters as their mom was strapping them into automobile seats for an escape.

Hardest hit was Pennsylvania, the place for a time, water roiling down the Susquehanna threatened to interrupt via the Conowingo Dam, imperiling Port Deposit simply downriver. The deluge did fracture one finish of the mighty dam, which is anchored in bedrock and thick sufficient to hold U.S. Route 1 throughout the river. The street was closed for months whereas a quarter-inch hole was repaired.

My notes on the water gushing via Conowingo’s floodgates describe it as “projectile vomiting,” spewing nearly horizontally for a lot of yards.

At Harpers Ferry, WV, the place the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac, I ventured out over a railroad trestle the place a loaded coal practice had been parked to stabilize the crossing. I needed to crawl, the entire affair was shaking so badly in standing waves the place the 2 rivers collided. I estimated their peak at 10 ft.

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One other lesson was the ability of “episodic” occasions. In a number of days in June 1972, extra polluting sediment washed into the Bay than it might usually obtain in a number of many years. That included an estimated 20 million tons scoured from behind Conowingo Dam, the place it had been accumulating for the reason that dam was in-built 1928.

Simply suppose. When you have been a scientist learning how sediment entered the Bay for a complete, lengthy profession, all the things you thought you knew would have been modified within the area of a weekend.

There may be one other lesson we must always have discovered however didn’t. Agnes’ fury exquisitely uncovered how a lot we had altered the watershed that it fell on: paving, creating, ditching, draining wetlands, doubling and tripling makes use of of fertilizers.

There may be little doubt that the prehistoric Chesapeake noticed storms the equal of Agnes or greater. However that watershed had way more resilience. Its forests and wetlands and hundreds of thousands of beaver dams and ponds have been in a position to retain and restrain the runoff, to let it soak in and filter via the groundwater. Additionally, oysters grew on huge reefs, nearer to the floor, and have been subsequently much less prone to smothering than at this time’s flattened, dredged oyster beds.

Since Agnes, now we have made a nod towards outfitting improvement with stormwater controls. However within the final decade, some 40 years after Agnes ran 12 ft deep down Foremost Road in Ellicott Metropolis, MD, two massive rainfalls within the area of some years inundated the city once more.

Some scientists have famous that the Chesapeake ecosystem was by no means fairly the identical after Agnes. I feel it was not Agnes a lot as Agnes pulling the set off.

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After World Warfare II, we had begun to significantly chip away on the Bay watershed’s pure resilience. We added an increasing number of potential pollution to farmland, an increasing number of septic tanks and sewage lagoons to suburban and concrete lands.

However from the mid-Nineteen Fifties till Agnes, the Bay area was dry, with river inflows starting from under regular to historic droughts. Agnes ushered in a decade that was moist, with rivers working excessive all through the Seventies, even should you took Agnes out of the equation. Nature had lined our sins — till it didn’t.

We’ll actually by no means see one other Agnes. The Nationwide Climate Service has retired the identify, together with the names of a number of dozen of our deadliest and costliest storms.

And on the brilliant aspect, all of that freshwater in 1972 depressed stinging sea nettle populations Baywide for years.

Tom Horton, a Bay Journal columnist, has written many articles and books in regards to the Chesapeake Bay, together with Turning the Tide and Island Out of Time. He at present teaches writing and environmental matters at Salisbury College. His opinions don’t essentially mirror these of the Bay Journal, the place this commentary was initially revealed in June 2022. Distributed by the Bay Journal Information Service.

A post-Agnes view of Cartersville, VA, on the James River about 25 miles west of Richmond. The flood destroyed the Route 45 Cartersville Bridge, in-built 1884, carrying away its 4 middle spans. The 2 shoreside spans of the bridge nonetheless stand beside a brand new bridge and are preserved as historic websites. (Library of Virginia by way of Flickr Commons) Mark Fagerburg