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Hurricane Sandy’s path helped spare Maryland the worst of the storm’s fury, as the state was exposed to its southern, weaker side. This summer’s violent “derecho” storms likely helped as well by bringing down weak trees and spurring utility companies to trim around their lines, said Christopher Strong, a warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service Baltimore-Washington forecast office.
Still, the region was lucky.
“There were some spots, especially in Southern Maryland, that had 60, 70, 80 mph wind gusts. The winds were there. I’m a little surprised there wasn’t more damage than there was, to be honest,” Strong said.
Marylanders owe the relative lack of flooding to the dry weather preceding the storm, leaving the ground able to absorb the 4 to 10 inches of rainfall, Strong said. By contrast, last year’s Tropical Storm Lee caused major flooding because it came right after Hurricane Irene, when the ground already was saturated with water.
Hurricane Sandy was unusual because it came late in the season and had characteristics both of a tropical storm and of an arctic nor’easter, Strong said. The hurricane initially drew strength from the energy in the warm waters of the Caribbean, but intensified even after landfall, as hurricanes generally don’t, because of its contact with cold northern air, Strong said.
“Over us, we kind of had that transformation from one to the other,” from a hurricane to a nor’easter, Strong said. “In some cases, it behaved like a hurricane. In other cases, it behaved like a winter storm. … The interesting thing was that once you put all that tropical moisture with the cold air ... there was a very strong temperature contact between the warm tropical air of the hurricane and the cold air.”
Winds were weaker in Maryland, south of landfall, than in New York and New Jersey to the north of it because to the south of the storm, the counter-clockwise direction of the wind runs counter to the westward direction of the overall storm, subtracting some of the wind’s strength, Strong explained. North of the eye, the wind is blowing in the same direction as the storm travels, increasing its speed.
“It’s all about where the storm hits, and the fact that our region was on the left side of the storm was of tremendous benefit to us,” said Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), who was “very” surprised that the county’s waterfront areas weren’t badly hit.
“Honestly, I was pleasantly shocked,” he said.
Southern Maryland is faring better than some parts of the state, including Crisfield, which flooded, and Garrett County, which is buried under snow, said Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. MEMA is doing damage assessments in both places.
Storm forecasts were accurate, but Sandy moved away from Maryland faster than expected, doing its worst damage elsewhere, McDonough said.
“We did have a good bit of rain. One of the things that didn’t happen was … the storm was going to make landfall somewhere between Virginia Beach and New Jersey, and then it would move in and stop and stay a while,” McDonough said. “We were concerned it was going to settle in around the Susquehanna River area, along the Maryland-Pennsylvania line.”
Sandy ‘harbinger of climate change’
One thing the storm did before it left was saturate the Susquehanna River’s Conowingo Dam with sediment, with as-yet poorly understood consequences for the eventual health of the Chesapeake Bay, said Bill Dennison, vice president for science applications at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Sediment washed into the bay harms plants and animals by blocking sunlight and choking filter feeders like oysters with grit. Fine sediment continues to affect water quality because it is easily washed off the bay bottom, back into suspension, by later storms.
“The filter feeders don’t do well. They can’t eat dirt. They’re not happy with that. One of the things we need to do is watch the turbidity of the fine-grained particles over time. The bay is all churned up, pretty chocolate-colored right now, as would be expected. As that settles out, it’s the legacy of some of the fine-grained sediments we need to watch,” Dennison said.
But fall is a relatively good time for a disaster because “growing season’s over for most of the critical habitat, the living resources. If you’re going to have a storm, it’s not the worst time of the year to have it. The bay really doesn’t respond well when you have those summer storms, like Agnes [in] ’72,” Dennison said.
And storms aren’t all bad news for the bay, either.
“One thing that we learned from Isabel is that it takes the better part of a year to really, totally assess the impacts. The fisheries impacts often can be somewhat positive and can be manifested in the following year,” Dennison said. “In some cases, it just turned out to be a good way — a lot of the fish spawned in the ocean. The surge actually brought in a lot more larvae. ... It’s not necessarily a negative.”
A hurricane is a weather event, not a climate one, but the appearance of Hurricane Sandy accords with climate scientists’ predictions about the consequences of global climate change, Dennison said. People living in the likely path of future storms, especially near coasts, must take steps to prepare.
“All the climate predictions are for more frequent and more intense storms, including hurricanes. This is a harbinger of climate change. The other very clear demonstration of climate change that we see is sea level rise. Just like Isabel did in 2003, now Sandy did in 2012, we got a glimpse of the future. The future is a higher ... sea level,” Dennison said. “This is a wake-up call. This is not just a blip and let’s-just-go-back-to-business-as-usual. This is time to start changing our practices to be better, more resilient to these kinds of events.”