- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

Tropical Storm Isabel, downgraded from the Category 2 hurricane that hit the mid-Atlantic area Thursday, collapsed in Canada yesterday — leaving behind 28 persons dead, millions without electricity, coastal areas flooded, and damage by wind and water that is still being assessed.

Yet the storm’s ferocity managed to surprise some local residents, even after four days of warnings, the closing of the city and federal governments, and a dash to stock up on bottled water, flashlights and batteries.

“I expected maybe a foot or a foot and a half, not 4 feet of water throughout the whole restaurant,” said Fran Crookston, a bartender at the Fish Market & Restaurant, one of dozens of homes and businesses in Old Town Alexandria inundated by the Potomac River.

About 585,000 metropolitan area customers were still without power yesterday, and floodwaters had yet to recede in Annapolis and Long Beach, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay.

A roving army of utility crews restored power to about 500,000 local customers yesterday.

Tidal flooding arrived in Isabel’s wake yesterday, with high water washing over Point of Rocks, Md. Authorities warned that the Potomac River would crest today and possibly flood places such as Alexandria again.

Millions of gallons of rainwater from Isabel is expected to cascade from the mountains in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia over the next few days.

More than 1 million D.C.-area residents are on a boil-water advisory, and thousands are using dry ice to store perishable foods as utility companies caution that some customers may be without electricity for more than a week.

Yesterday, hundreds of volunteers helped clear the Mall of debris while National Park Service crews replaced U.S. flags around the Washington Monument that were shredded by Isabel.

Forecasters predicted Isabel’s path and magnitude fairly accurately. But even as the first raindrops fell and the wind picked up in the District, uncertainty and even skepticism about the storm’s strength persisted.

On a special Hurricane Isabel edition of CNN’s “Crossfire” on Thursday afternoon, co-host Tucker Carlson chided D.C. residents for being a city of “weather wimps” after the shutdown of the city and federal governments and Metro bus and rail service before the storm.

Nevertheless, a few hearty Washingtonians were spotted windsurfing on the Potomac and die-hard anglers were yanking catfish out of the river as the storm blew into town.

By early Friday, though, Isabel had removed any doubt about its capacity for destruction.

The storm’s death toll hit 28 yesterday, with 16 dead in Virginia, three in North Carolina, five in Maryland and one each in the District, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Isabel sheared a massive trail from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to western Pennsylvania, leaving about 6 million homes without power before the storm up broke completely yesterday morning over southern Canada.

President Bush yesterday declared the District a disaster area, as he had done earlier for Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. The disaster designation directs federal dollars to the relief and recovery effort. Delaware officials are expected to request a similar designation this week.

Isabel had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time its began to lash the D.C. area early Friday. It dropped a little more than 2 inches of rain on the region, but pushed a record storm surge of about 8 feet up the Potomac River and about 6 feet up the Chesapeake Bay toward Annapolis and Baltimore.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport recorded winds of 45 mph and gusts up to 58 mph, which snapped power lines and downed hundreds of trees in the District alone.

As a Category 2 storm, Hurricane Isabel blew ashore North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Thursday afternoon with 100-mph winds, heavy rains and pounding waves. It initially sent more than 1 million residents fleeing to shelters before leaving hundreds of thousands without power, ripping apart some homes and cutting the islands off from the mainland.

By that time, official Washington had battened down in anticipation of the storm.

The D.C. mayor and governors of Maryland and Virginia had declared states of emergency. The D.C. government closed except for police, emergency and road crews.

“The is a huge storm, and she is a monster storm,” Mayor Anthony A. Williams said during a news briefing Thursday. “Stay calm, stay informed and stay indoors.”

Metro officials suspended service Thursday on their fleet of 1,400 buses and five subway lines.

“People could be blown into the path of a train or bus or knocked on the rail track bed,” said Metro spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson.

Local governments and Red Cross officials set up more than a dozen emergency shelters, tens of thousands of sandbags were distributed, and schools were closed and turned into makeshift emergency shelters.

Meanwhile, Isabel’s approach prompted the Maryland Port Administration to close the Port of Baltimore, airlines to ground more than 2,000 flights, and Amtrak to shut down all trains south of the District.

Even Mr. Bush headed for higher ground, leaving for Camp David, Md., on Wednesday, a day earlier than planned. Congressional leaders canceled floor votes for the week, and most lawmakers left Washington well before Isabel arrived.

“This is, in terms of prediction, perhaps the worst storm we’ve seen in decades,” Gov. Mark Warner said Thursday when he authorized the evacuation of at least 86,500 residents who were under a hurricane warning in southeast Virginia.

Hurricane Isabel’s approach had led most local newscasts since last Sunday. Reporters were broadcasting live from the Eastern Shores of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, and footage of D.C.-area residents stocking up on bottled water, batteries and toilet paper was airing on a consistent loop.

Cable news channels added Isabel updates to their round-the-clock coverage of the war in Iraq, the Democratic presidential race and the apparent broken engagement of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

Ratings for the Weather Channel, which devoted most of its 24-hour programing to Isabel all week long, were 95 percent higher than normal as early as Monday, according to Nielsen Media Research figures.

For some, however, the onslaught of hurricane news diminished Isabel’s stature.

“The more it got blown up by the media, the smaller I expected it to be,” said Ethan Wagner, 31, a manager at John Crouch Tobacconist on King Street in Old Town.

He conceded that he was caught off guard by the howling winds and sheets of rain when he began driving home from work Thursday night.

“It was a pretty bad one,” Mr. Wagner said Friday at work, where there wasn’t much business because police had cordoned off the street for the flood cleanup and possibly more high water.

The leading edge of the storm forced residents to evacuate their homes Thursday afternoon along the Potomac River in Fairfax County and off the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in Long Beach, Md.

A day earlier, weather experts were still trying to determine the exact path of Hurricane Isabel, though forecasters by that time predicted the storm would likely strike North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland, and probably come close to the District.

The National Weather Service pegged Isabel as a Category 2 storm on the five-tier Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. The storm had sustained winds of 105 mph that were pushing high, mighty waves into the Carolinas.

By late Wednesday, the storm was positioned about 300 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras and moving northwest at about 15 mph. Forecasters predicted it to hit the Outer Banks by the next morning.

On Wednesday, some weather experts said Isabel looked a lot like Hurricane Fran — a Category 3 hurricane that was the third costliest in U.S. history. Fran caused $3.2 billion in damage from North Carolina to Pennsylvania in 1996. It hit Cape Fear, N.C., on Sept. 5 with 120-mph winds, then fizzled out as Tropical Depression Fran two days later in Pennsylvania.

Historically, hurricanes have been difficult to predict, with some changing course several times and others veering out to sea.

For example, Ocean City officials in August 1993 prepared for the worst when Hurricane Emily was heading straight for the North Carolina coast with winds topping 100 mph. After the beach resort evacuated 150,000 people, Emily suddenly turned northeast and headed out to sea.

Still, local officials had plenty to worry about: Since 1900 in the United States, 12 hurricanes have killed more than 100 people each, and 10 storms each have caused more than $1 billion worth of damage.

A storm of Isabel’s strength hadn’t hit the East Coast since August 1992, when Hurricane Andrew crossed South Florida with winds of more than 145 mph, causing $26.5 billion in damage and 26 deaths.

Forecasters didn’t know Wednesday if Isabel would pack the wallop of Andrew or more closely resemble Floyd, which caused $5 billion worth of damage and killed 56 persons when it hit North Carolina in September 1999. Floyd caused heavy flooding but slowed quickly and created only minor problems after hitting land and heading north.

Meteorologists acknowledged that it was impossible to predict with certainty what Isabel would do.

On Tuesday, the National Weather Service downgraded Hurricane Isabel to a Category 2 storm when its winds slowed to about 105 mph. It predicted the storm would slow to a Category 1 storm before hitting land but warned it would still pose a threat to the Carolinas and beyond.

Isabel was 545 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras and moving at about 8 mph by late Tuesday night. Head-high swells were already hitting near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared a state of emergency Tuesday night. “It’s simply a matter of readiness,” said Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican.

In North Carolina, Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat, also declared a state of emergency that night as the Outer Banks and other beach areas were evacuated. Residents from South Carolina to New Jersey boarded up homes and businesses.

D.C.-area officials continued to make preparations by buttressing riverbanks and Metro stations with sandbags. Residents along the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic beaches prepared for evacuation orders.

Alexandria officials ordered crews to fill 3,000 sandbags for distribution Tuesday, though by storm’s end some business owners flooded out by Isabel would complain that they didn’t get enough sandbags.

The Navy moved the Atlantic Fleet out to sea from Norfolk so the ships would not be battered against the piers. The Air Force also started flying airplanes from coastal bases to inland fields.

Virginia Beach officials, meanwhile, issued a declaration of emergency and planned to open some shelters.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency in Virginia on Monday.

Two days earlier, the weather service had described Hurricane Isabel as “a little better organized.” The storm was churning westward over the Atlantic with maximum sustained winds near 150 mph and extreme gusts.

They predicted Isabel, then a Category 4 storm, would strengthen and follow a course to hit the southeastern coastal states by the end of the week. The storm had been downgraded from a Category 5 storm, but the weather service warned that it was “still very powerful.”

Computer models showed the hurricane turning toward Georgia and the Carolinas over the course of the week, but forecasters still remained uncertain whether it would hit the United States or veer back into the Atlantic as it moved north.

Traveling westward at about 10 mph along a course about 400 miles north of Puerto Rico, Isabel was on a trajectory to reach the U.S. coastline between Virginia and Florida by Thursday. And hurricane-savvy residents in the Southeast were closely following Isabel’s movements and starting to think about boarding up their houses.

Brian DeBose, Denise Barnes and Patrick Badgley contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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