Hurricane Isabel Comes to Town
Hurricane Isabel arrived in the Hampton Roads area on September 18, 2003;
although it had been a powerful Category 5 storm several days before, far out
in the Atlantic, when it first made landfall on the northern Outer Banks of
North Carolina, it was just barely a Category 2 storm. it was down to only
Category 1 by the time it reached us.
Its low rating notwithstanding (by the numbers, it was theoretically only
slightly more powerful here than Hurricane Floyd, in 1999), it nevertheless
did very severe damage to the Peninsula (incredibly worse than Floyd), for
After the storm, over 95% of the people on the Peninsula were without power,
and many lost telephone service as well: some when outlying equipment hubs
lost power for so long their battery backups were used up; some when extreme
tree damage took down main fiber-optic trunks; and some when underground
service lines were torn up when trees were uprooted.
- First, it hit just about at high tide, and the resultant flooding due to
the storm surge was very severe. Although this storm was not as powerful (by
the raw numbers) as the great (un-named) hurricane of August 1933, its
flooding was considerably more severe. At historic Fort Monroe, there is a
plaque on an exterior wall denoting the flood water level from the 1933
storm; flood waters from Hurricane Isabel (which flooded the entire interior
of the fort) eclipsed that mark by a staggering three feet.
- Second, rainfall in the preceeding months had been almost twice the
average for that period, and the ground was very soft - this contributed to
the large number of trees downed. This hurricane caused tree damage similar
to that of Hurricane Hazel in 1954, another considerably more powerful storm
(circa 100 MPH winds). Many of the trees which came down were very sizeable
trees, close to 100 years old.
- Third, it appears that winds were spotty, and the full power of the
storm was not measured due to the extensive power losses, which cut power to
measuring instruments in many areas. In our neighbourhood, which is on the
edge of the Chesapeake Bay, winds sweeping in from the Bay (the eye was to
the South-West of us, putting the strong North-East quadrant of the storm
directly over us, with winds coming in from the long unimpeded fetch over the
Bay) may have been considerably higher than those measured inland on the
Peninsula. Our neighbourhood suffered extremely extensive tree damage
(including many large pines which were snapped off above ground level). Some
people speculated that a tornado might have been responsible; however, the
tree fall around our house (in many different directions, over the course of
several hours) indicated that no single event such as a tornado was
responsible for the extensive damage.
Damage to the House and Neighbourhood
Damage to our house was luckily (considering the massive destruction around
us) quite light: minor damage to the garage when a tree tilted over onto it
(luckily a large branch took most of the weight), including a modest hole in
the roof of the garage; and a basement that flooded to about 6" deep, which
didn't do much damage as we knew it was coming and got everything of any
value out of harm's way. We were lucky there too - water outside the house
was much higher than that, but it couldn't get into the basement very quickly.
We did dodge a major bullet, though (see below).
There was extremely heavy damage outside, though. We had 6 trees of 2' thick
and larger size down (one of them the one on the garage); we lost another one
later as a huge (4' across at the base) poplar was leaning on it, and it was
too dangerous to try and take the poplar down by itself. We never bothered to
try and count the smaller ones. There were three trees across the driveway
(one an oak about 2' across), and two down across the power lines along the
road in front of my house (one a giant 3' oak).
Damage around the neighbourhood was extensive. After the storm, the road out
had close to a dozen major trees down across it. Of the four houses on either
side of us, three had trees on them, although none was really badly damaged.
For all the photos, there are modest-sized images on the page; if you click
on any of the images, you will be taken to a larger image (size noted below,
for those of you on slow links) of the one you clicked on. For most of them,
also included is a companion picture showing what it normally/later looks
Here's one of the only photos I took during the actual storm; it shows the
level of the water in the marshlands behind the house. The lower part of the
bulkhead, in the center of the picture, is about 6 feet high on the outside
face; the water level in the marshland outside it only gets up to the very
base of it at the highest normal tides. The top of the low part was several
feet under water at the highest surge.
Note that on the very right hand of the first image there's a tree in the far
background which is missing in the latter photo; you'll see it below.
Storm Aftermath Photos
Here's a view of that tree that was missing from the previous photo. This one
had a bad spot in the heart, which probably contributed to its loss; other
large pines which came down were sound, though.
Here's the view up the driveway, from next to the house, toward the road.
It's a bit difficult to see exactly what's what there, but there are the tops
of two trees (from my neighbour's property) across the drive nearer the
house, and a large oak completely across the drive behind them; you can see
the trunk of it in the second photograph. (The blue car has been backed
around the corner in the later photo.) Notice also the huge poplar leaning
across the drive in both photos - it was taken down some months later.
Here's the view back the other way, down the driveway, from the road, toward
the house, although it's hard to see the house in the first photo, there's so
much in the way. You can see the huge oak that came down across the drive;
the trunk was still there in the second photo, some weeks later, as it was
suspended in the air over a number of my azaleas, and I was trying to work
out how to get it out of there without crushing the azaleas - something we
eventually accomplished. We were still able to get cars in and out, though,
as we have a circular driveway, and the trunk of the oak only blocked one
Here's the view out at the road; our driveway is just on the other side of
the paper/mail-boxes in the foreground. The AT&T truck parked in the road
belongs to my next-door neighbour, who's a supervisor with AT&T and was out
on duty during the storm. You can see the tops of an enormous oak (which took
out overhead power lines) reaching over the fence, and almost into the road.
In the "after" photo, note the enormous pile of debris on the side of the road
in front of our neighbour's house.
Looking back from the other direction at our large oak which took out the
power lines. The second photo shows the left hand part of that area as
cleanup progressed; the third photo shows the right hand part, with only the
trunk left to deal with.
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As I mentioned above, we dodged a bullet: this photo shows yet another huge
oak, one which overhangs the bedroom wing. Isabel left it with a significant
lean over the house. At the height of the storm, my heart was in my mouth
watching it - with every big puff, the entire tree would lean (not bend, mind
you - it leaned stiffly, from the ground) over a few more degrees. I kept
waiting for it to go, but it never did. Note that there was no ground
disturbance whatsoever on the "high" side; the ground did sink almost a foot
on the "low" side, though. My hypothesis is that this was because the ground
near the house had been disturbed when the house was built, and was a little
loose; the force of the storm, acting on the tree as a lever, compacted it.
This amusing photograph shows our current firewood pile. Note the diagonal
line about a third the way along from the left; if you look closely, you will
note that the wood to the right of that link is actually stacked in front of
the wood to the left of it. Almost the entire bank of wood is double stacked!
And this is after we spent the entire winter heating the house with our
wood-stove, using many cords of wood in the process! In addition, there is a
great deal more on the ground, unsplit. Much of the wood here was collected
from neighbours who were discarding it - most of our large tree trunks have
been cut up into 12' lengths, and are awaiting a portable mill to turn them
Pictures of the destruction behind the house, and the tree on the garage;
pictures of the destruction in the front yard, and grinding the stumps.
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