WASHINGTON (Sept. 08, 2017)—In Maryland, which historically has ducked many of the worst storms of the last 50 years, the question is increasingly not if, but when the next big one will strike. And while some believe the state has often been spared from big hits by dint of location and the buffer of the Chesapeake, what the bay giveth it can also wash away.
Maryland has done extensive planning, including infrastructure improvements that focus on bolstering natural storm defenses to better absorb tidal surges and rainfall runoff, but there is widespread consensus among state officials and meteorologists that a massive hurricane like Harvey or Irma could overwhelm emergency services.
"None of us are exempt," said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, during comments to reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday before he voted in support of the $7.85 billion Harvey relief bill in the House on Wednesday. "Every part of the country floods…we're all subject to the vagaries of natural disasters."
Among the storms that have not missed Maryland is Agnes in 1972, a tropical deluge widely considered among the worst to hit the state, causing 19 deaths and $110 million in damages, according to the National Weather Service. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel made landfall in North Carolina as a Category 2 storm, creating a tidal surge in the Chesapeake of more than 6 feet and flooding Maryland communities including Annapolis, Fells Point in Baltimore and Cambridge, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records.
"It's certainly not impossible that something like (superstorm) Sandy would happen here," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and one of the state's leading climate experts.
Boesch noted that a scientific concept called stationarity, the idea that many patterns operate within a fixed range, is no longer true when applied to climate-related events like big storms.
"Terms like 'once in 100 years' don't have much meaning anymore," he explained, while cautioning that the cooler ocean waters off the nation's mid-Atlantic coast make a Harvey-scale storm unlikely.
For coastal states like Maryland, there are two types of storms that have the most potential to create damage: those that bring tidal surges (sea water pushed inland by a tropical storm or hurricane) and those that feature much more rain than wind, which create problems with water run-off.
Both storm varieties cause flooding, but for most of Maryland it's the latter that can wreak havoc, particularly in low-lying areas like Annapolis and parts of Baltimore around the Inner Harbor, which flood regularly under heavy rain.
"Generally, we have increasing precipitation because the atmosphere is getting warmer and this will continue," said Konstantin Vinnikov, a research scientist at University of Maryland and the state climatologist for Maryland. "Sea level rise in the next couple of decades will make everything much more catastrophic. In Maryland, our islands are suffering with sea level rise even now."
So it's fair to wonder what will happen if Maryland gets pounded with a Harvey- or Katrina-level storm that dumped water on the state for days.
"Clearly, the Eastern Shore could get hit as hard as the Gulf Coast could get hit," said Ed McDonough, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which is charged with coordinating the state-level response to natural or man-made disasters. "The difference is most of the people who are in harm's way are there in summer vacationing."
MEMA's basic action plan in the event of a direct storm hit or deluge of rain on the Eastern Shore is to order an evacuation of residents to areas north or west. It's something the agency did on a small scale in 2011, moving about 3,000 seasonal workers from Ocean City when Hurricane Irene swept through the mid-Atlantic region.
MEMA recently updated one of its key emergency operation plans, although its main strategic emergency blueprint, the Emergency Preparedness Program Strategic Plan, has not been updated since 2013. "Plans are kind of living documents," said McDonough, referring to the latter. "As things happen, you modify them."
Loss of life and property are not the only concerns in a major storm. Given the economic importance of the Chesapeake Bay, environmental damage is also a worry.
"Big storms in general are bad for the bay because they bring a lot of pollution," said Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The best defense against pollution from water runoff is what are called "living shorelines," or those that remain in their natural state, something that is on the decline in Maryland, according to McGee.
"Flooding is made worse when you have a lot of paved surfaces and rooftops," said McGee, who also said that Maryland was "making progress" at mitigating development in sensitive shore areas, but "not fast enough."
"There's a fair amount of land that's converting from agriculture and forest to developed land," she added.
Maryland's Coast Smart Council, a group of state and local environmental and planning groups formed in 2014, is charged with making regulations for construction and land use with this in mind. In 2016, Coast Smart's efforts included grant assistance to help restore floodplains, reinforce beaches and protect marsh lands that can serve as a flood buffer during storms.
But will it be enough? "Until you have a storm, it's hard to gauge," said Matt Fleming, director of Maryland's Chesapeake and Coastal Service, an agency that coordinates among regional, state and local governments and private organizations to protect the state's shoreline. "I hope we're more prepared than we were five years ago. We've taken steps to put us in that direction."
Timing also matters in Maryland. Spring or early summer storms are particularly lethal to the bay's underwater sea grasses, which are still immature at the time but serve as spawning grounds and protection for young fish and crab populations.
Although Maryland has only a short ocean-facing shoreline, its needs differ from those areas directly on the Chesapeake.
"We've been lucky in a lot of ways, but you know we can be on the national news with the satellite trucks here at any given time," said Ocean City Councilman Dennis Dare, a former member of the Coast Smart Council. "That's why we've spent 30 years preparing."
For Ocean City, it is storm surge, not wind or rain, that holds the greatest potential for mayhem—or, ironically, a storm that misses that city and hits the Chesapeake directly.
"If it (a storm) goes up the Chesapeake Bay, that means the metro areas—Annapolis, Prince George's, Howard County, Baltimore—will have severe damage," added Dare. "The resources of the state are gonna go in those areas and the Eastern Shore…we may be left to fend for ourselves."
If Maryland absorbs a massive drubbing like Harvey or Irma, more than the Eastern Shore will likely go begging.
"No one is going to have everything they need for a catastrophic event like Harvey," said McDonough.
On this, there is widespread agreement.
"If we get a ginormous (sic) storm like they had in Houston," McGee said, "that's going to overwhelm the entire system."