Is Mary­land ready for the next big storm?

Cecil Whig - - OBITUARIES & REGIONAL - By J.F. MEILS Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

WASH­ING­TON — 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 Bay, 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-5th Dis­trict), 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 midAt­lantic 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,” Dare added. “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,” McDonough said.

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.”

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