All through the summer, I’ve been working on a new book project. GREAT STORMS OF THE CHESAPEAKE is due out next spring—just in time for hurricane season. I’ve been delving into the best (or is that worst?) storms of the last 400 years in the Chesapeake Bay region … mostly in Maryland, but also touching upon Virginia shores because many of the oldest weather records and descriptions of storms seem to be from Virginia.
When one sets out to write about the greatest storms of the Chesapeake Bay region, what you quickly realize is how the anecdotes and facts pile up around you like snow in a February blizzard. Four hundred years of hurricanes and nor’easters, blizzards and gales, waterspouts and hail storms is a lot of weather to cover.
Again and again, I’ve also been reminded that weather is one of the last wild things on the planet, far beyond human control. We’ve come a long way in predicting it and understanding the weather since English explorer Captain John Smith encountered his first Chesapeake Bay squall, yet there’s not much we can do to change it.
As a lifelong Marylander, two weather incidents stand out in my childhood memory. The first is Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. I hadn’t started kindergarten yet at Lisbon Elementary School, but I can recall how my father drove us a couple of miles down to the Rt. 97 bridge over the south branch of the Patapsco River. The river marked the boundary between Howard and Carroll Counties. Most of the time, the Patapsco was fairly placid, not much more than a large stream that one could easily wade across.
But the deluge of rain from the tropical storm had changed all that. Even the stream on our farm had overflowed, flooding the lower fields. Our stream was yet another tributary of the Patapsco, and the river was now raging as all this water flowed toward the Chesapeake Bay. The bridge was gone, washed away by the rushing waters that now roared as loudly as Niagara Falls to my young ears. All these years later, it’s a memory that’s burned into my mind.
Fortunately, we were high and dry on high ground, watching the river from a safe distance. But downstream, at Ellicott City, the flood had turned deadly. Several victims would die there in the high water. As I discovered in the research for this book, it was not the first time that the Patapsco—normally so calm and overlooked—had turned into a dangerous torrent that swept right into downtown Baltimore.
When we talk about the weather, it often seems like a harmless way to make small talk and pass the time with friends and strangers alike—especially the ones in line with us at the supermarket to buy bread and milk before the next big storm. But as I’ve found from researching this book, when it comes to the weather, it’s anything but a safe topic.