In Observations

It was a happy day in 1995 when Dan Rider took up residence in lower Dorchester county,  “ in downtown Wingate…one of 51 people, right next to the volunteer fire company and the crab picking plant.”  Rider, a professional forester, loves to roam. The western shore haunts of his youth had long been supplanted by malls and parking lots. Marshes and woods and tidal creeks stretching to every horizon was just what he wanted.

He was not unaware of the tradeoffs. You had to mind the higher tides that could cover the rural roads during storms and sometimes, when there was no storm at all. But these were just inconveniences.  But the tide that would come literally roaring across half of Dorchester County in the late summer of 2003 was a different beast entirely. It would change his life and also, he believes, the nature of the lower county.

Hurricane Isabel made landfall in North Carolina on a Thursday, Sept 18. Forecasters actually were feeling lucky by that point—the storm had been an off the charts monster coming across the Atlantic, a Category 5 with one gust to 233 mph, the highest ever recorded in an Atlantic hurricane. It ran across a patch of ocean cooled by passage of a previous hurricane and lost energy, arriving at the U.S. mainland a Category 2.  As it moved through Virginia and Maryland, winds and rainfall became lighter, “sparing us its worst,” officials told the Baltimore Sun.

In Wingate, Rider noticed a lot of the oldtimers leaving town Thursday night. “They had lived through a lot of storms down there, and now…it got my attention.” As a precaution, he moved that night five miles inland to a friend’s farm. Restless, he spent most of the night out in the barnyard, checking the wind. By the wee hours of Friday, high tide had passed for Dorchester “and I was standing out there thinking this was pretty much going to be a non-event.”

That’s when he heard it. “Like a train coming through the woods, that’s the closest I can describe it, getting louder and louder, and closer. It was a wall of water, turning over the leaves and twigs and pine needles of the forest all around us…we were five miles from the Bay!”  Then it burst from the woods and came across the barnyard, moving “maybe 40, 50 miles an hour,” Rider estimates. “It wasn’t more than 8-10 inches high, but it hit me in the ankles so hard I thought I might do down. . . it packed a punch.”

When Friday morning dawned Rider took a big farm tractor and followed flooded roads back to Wingate. “Waves were rolling through my downstairs windows, not a good day.”  The trip that morning was surreal: “Rabbits perched in the low branches of trees, sharing space with snakes; deer standing with their nostrils just out of the water. . . if  deer can stand on tiptoes, those deer were. Nothing tried to flee as we came by. Coffins bobbed along the way, popped from their resting places after the lids of vaults were washed away.”

A neighbor in his Chesapeake workboat set off for Cambridge, following county roads. He got within 10 miles of the county seat before the water shallowed up. A kayaker paddled up to a four way stop sign as a National Guard truck and the county sheriff approached the intersection from two other directions. “Who’s got the right of way?” the paddler shouted.

Isabel’s track, just west of the Bay, maximized its surge, piling water up as high as 8 feet above normal tides in Baltimore and Annapolis, and perhaps six feet in Dorchester. An estimated half of the county was submerged, according to the Baltimore Sun’s account. Only one other storm in recorded history, the August, 1933 hurricane, had produced a comparable surge. It, too, took a westward track.

Estimates of everyday water levels in the Chesapeake a century from now range to around five or six feet—about equal to Isabel’s surge. An Isabel then would push water to ten or twelve feet above today’s levels. That could have happened in 2003 had Isabel hit as a Category 5 storm, University of Maryland researcher J. Court Stevenson says.

Something profound happened across Dorchester after Isabel, says Rider, who has since moved to higher ground near Hurlock in the northern part of the county.  “It was a game changer for the landscape,” he said.  “There wasn’t much rain to dilute it, so salt water lay on the land for up to two, three weeks in places.  The pines survived, but the white oaks died. Gums, maples, red oaks…they all took a big hit.”

But it was more than that, he says, though he struggles to explain it: “It changed the way water moved off the land. I can’t put my finger on it, but I spent every day of my life in these woods for years, and it’s different out here now. I know it, I can feel it.”  I found this account from a professional forester fascinating (Rider now works for Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources in forest stewardship)—fascinating because it echoes similar statements from locals to the effect that ‘something’s changed.’  Locals tend to focus on Isabel, while scientists focus more on recent accelerations they’ve measured in the rate of sea level rise.  They agree that things have changed for the wetter.

We interviewed Dan Rider while filming him this winter in a Dorchester woodland he had last visited 17 years ago to assess its timber value. “Back then, this was a forest,” he said, pointing out the dead hardwood trees and the abundant sunlight that now filters through the thinning crowns of the pines. “These pines are doomed, they just don’t know it yet,” he says, referring to the double whammy of more frequent flooding and more salt water.

At another place he points out a woods that used to be well drained enough to grow wheat. He ‘cruised’ the area to get a sense of its timber value years ago and at one point, “I looked down and there sat a blue crab…not the best sign when you’re a timber owner.”

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