The 20th Anniversary of Hurricane Isabel

On September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel made landfall in North Carolina and moved up the East Coast, causing a record-setting storm surge that impacted Baltimore and the National Aquarium.

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When Hurricane Isabel swept through Baltimore 20 years ago, 16 employees spent a long, difficult night inside the National Aquarium.

One of those employees was a curator who gave a videotaped interview just days after the storm. In it, she said,

"If I were to give one recommendation to whoever views this video 20 years from now—we may have just had the flood of the century or the storm of the century or something like that, but that doesn't mean it's going to be 100 years before it happens again. [You should] not only be prepared for the worst-case scenario, but truly expect it."

Today, events that may have once been called "100-year storms" or "500-year floods" are happening more and more often. One example close to home is the historic, catastrophic flooding that occurred in Ellicott City, Maryland, in July 2016 and again in May 2018. Storms in general are becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change, as more heat in the atmosphere means more energy in the system. Hurricanes bring heavier rain, which causes more widespread flooding and damage.

Twenty years ago, the National Aquarium team was well-prepared for Isabel. Several days ahead of the storm, as forecasts showed the hurricane potentially passing directly over Baltimore, the team came up with a game plan and did everything they could to get ready. They took down outdoor banners and signs that could blow away, parked Aquarium vehicles on higher ground further inland, and froze salt water that could be used to cool habitats if the power went out.

At midday on September 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel made landfall on North Carolina's Outer Banks as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 105 miles per hour. As the storm barreled northward toward Baltimore that afternoon, the Aquarium closed early to guests. Around 5 p.m., with the buildings empty of visitors, the team checked off their last-minute tasks. They banked all the entrances with sandbags and installed floodgates on Piers 3 and 4.

Once that work was done, the 16 staff members who had volunteered to ride out the storm at the Aquarium settled in for what they hoped would be an uneventful night.

It wasn't.

Vintage Image of the Aquarium Ticket Center with Heavy Flooding After Hurricane Isabel's Storm Surge

A Night to Remember

As evening fell, the team gathered for a final briefing, ate dinner and started watching a movie to bide their time. Information about the storm's progress was hard to come by. Email and internet access were spotty on desktop computers, and cell phones weren't tethered to the internet like today's smartphones. The only television news they could get was a channel out of Washington, D.C.

A few members of the team went outside to check the conditions at regular intervals. Eventually, it became clear that the Inner Harbor was rising rapidly, and someone on a Coast Guard ship docked nearby shouted a warning that they should expect a storm surge of at least 3 feet.

At midnight, the decision was made to turn off all the power in the Pier 4 building. If floodwater seeped into the pump room with all its high-voltage electrical equipment, it could cause an explosion. The dolphins, who don't rely on dissolved oxygen to breathe, would be fine in Dolphin Discovery without power.

A few hours later, with the high winds and high tide, white caps and waves lapped at the rear of the Pier 3 building—the Inner Harbor masquerading as the Atlantic Ocean, knocking at the back door.

While one of the team's initial concerns had been 100-mile-per-hour winds breaking windows in the Upland Tropical Rain Forest glass pyramid, the storm quickly redirected their attention from the top of the building to the bottom. Floodwater started coming up from below, seeping through cracks in the concrete floor—a complication no one had seen coming, and that the sandbags and watertight floodgates were useless against.

Still, between vacuuming up the water and pumping it out over the floodgates, the team was managing.

And then, at around 3 a.m., the Pier 3 building lost power and emergency generators kicked into gear. While this kept the animals safe, the team could no longer run the wet vac or pump out the pooling floodwater.

In another videotaped interview filmed days after the storm, the Aquarium's then-director of visitor services described that moment when the power went out in the Pier 3 building:

"There are all these people in headlamps, in this dark hallway, and nobody's talking because we all knew then that [the water] was coming in and there was nothing we could do to stop it. It was so quiet, except for an eerie trickle of water."

Around 6 a.m., things took another turn when the emergency generator failed. Water had flooded the pumps that delivered fuel to the rooftop generator. The team now faced the very real possibility of losing Aquarium animals. Without power, they couldn't control water temperatures or maintain dissolved oxygen levels in any of the aquatic exhibits in Pier 3.

Unable to use the elevators, the team started carrying metal bottles of compressed oxygen—which are both heavy and dangerous—and buckets of frozen salt water up several flights of stairs.

"The salt water was frozen in five-gallon plastic buckets, which each probably weighed more than 40 pounds," recalled General Curator Jack Cover, who was among those at the Aquarium that night. "And there was no ventilation or air-conditioning running, so the building was stagnant and hot."

Aquarists added the buckets of ice to the cold-water habitats to keep water temperatures low. They also started manually adding oxygen to aquatic exhibits by deploying air stones, or bubblers, connected to the oxygen bottles. All of this required heartbreaking decisions to prioritize some habitats and animals over others while hoping against hope that they could save each and every one.

In the end, they succeeded in doing just that.

After several dark, hot, hectic hours, the sun came up over an Inner Harbor that had risen so high, the Aquarium was cut off from the mainland. Even Pratt Street was underwater. Reinforcements arrived in boats, canoes and kayaks at the Pier 3 loading dock, bringing with them additional oxygen and supplies. Facilities staff walked heavy containers of diesel fuel up 11 flights of stairs to get the rooftop emergency generator running again. Thanks to everyone's efforts, every single Aquarium animal survived Isabel.

The Aquarium was only closed to guests for two days after the storm, even though the storm surge put the entire ground level of the Pier 3 building under 2 feet of water. (There's a watermark and plaque on the wall inside the Staff Entrance that shows how high the water came that morning.)

Across the state of Maryland during Isabel, water levels reached 3 to 8 feet above normal, bringing record high tides to the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Annapolis and other waterfront communities.

All told, Isabel caused more than $5 billion in damage in the U.S. It was one of the most damaging storms to hit the mid-Atlantic region, comparable to Agnes in 1972, Hazel in 1954 and the unnamed 1933 hurricane that washed away the south end of Ocean City, Maryland, cutting it off from Assateague Island and creating the inlet as we still know it 90 years later.

Vintage Exterior Image of the Aquarium's Pier 3 Building with Heavy Flooding After Hurricane Isabel's Storm Surge

Hurricanes and Climate Change

Hurricane season in the United States begins in early June and ends in late November. Like typhoons and all tropical cyclones, hurricanes are large, rotating storms fueled by warm water at the ocean's surface.

Climate change is expected to produce hurricanes with more intense rainfall, flooding and storm surges. The flood risk in many parts of the U.S. is increasing, due in part to climate change and its role in more frequent, intense storms, as well as sea level rise and extreme rain.

This is one reason why combating climate change is one of the overarching priorities that guides the National Aquarium's work today.

"In addition to reducing the Aquarium's carbon footprint by achieving net-zero emissions by 2035 and to translating ocean and climate science to our million-plus guests each year, the Aquarium advocates for increased investment in and equitable policies related to climate resiliency because coastal communities face increasingly severe and costly storms in our warming world," Senior Conservation Policy Manager Maggie Ostdahl explained.

She continued, "The concerted efforts of the Aquarium and other organizations do pay off. During Ocean Month this June, for example, NOAA laid out their plan for the historic ocean climate investments passed as part of the Inflation Reduction Act."

Today, 20 years out from Hurricane Isabel, we know that "once-in-a-century" storms and floods happen far more frequently and are more intense. As we look ahead, the National Aquarium is not only prepared for more extreme weather due to climate change, we expect it. However, history has also shown us that people can rise to difficult challenges—like 16 employees keeping a building full of animals alive for several hours despite multiple odds stacked against them—and that gives us hope.

Banner image of Hurricane Isabel from space is courtesy of Mike Trenchard, Earth Sciences & Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.

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