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Hurricane Isabel struck the Mid-Atlantic 15 years ago, and its memory is still fresh as Florence approaches

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/11/2018 Kevin Ambrose
A photo of Hurricane Isabel taken from the International Space Station. (NASA) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post A photo of Hurricane Isabel taken from the International Space Station. (NASA)

The Southeast and Mid-Atlantic are bracing this week for a hurricane which forecasters predict could generate widespread damage and power outages. Florence's impacts could last for days, much like Hurricane Isabel's did 15 years ago this month.

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In mid-September 2003, Isabel strengthened to a rare Category 5 hurricane with winds that reached 165 mph. A week later, the storm slammed into the North Carolina coast as a Category 2. Hurricane Isabel is still fresh in the memory of the Mid-Atlantic, though Hurricane Florence will bring a very different set of impacts.

Hurricane Isabel made landfall between Cape Lookout and Ocracoke Island in North Carolina with winds of 105 mph. The storm tracked northwest through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and into Pennsylvania, causing more than $5 billion in damage. The storm's remnants tracked into Canada.

Isabel was one of the most damaging storms to impact the Mid-Atlantic since Agnes in 1972 and Hazel in 1954. Isabel was comparable to the great Potomac-Chesapeake Hurricane of 1933 in Virginia and Maryland as far as storm surge and damage to the coastline.

In the Washington area, Isabel caused severe tidal flooding and widespread tree damage. Hundreds of thousands of people lost power, and some areas were without power for more than a week. The tidal flooding in Washington, D.C., exceeded the record set by the Potomac-Chesapeake Hurricane of 1933.

Left image: Isabel as a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds at 165 mph and the lowest pressure recorded at 915 mb. Right image: Isabel making landfall on the coast of North Carolina as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 105 mph. (NOAA/NASA) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post Left image: Isabel as a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds at 165 mph and the lowest pressure recorded at 915 mb. Right image: Isabel making landfall on the coast of North Carolina as a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 105 mph. (NOAA/NASA)

Isabel produced extensive damage across eastern North Carolina. The loss was in excess of $450 million. The damage was heaviest along the coastline, where the storm surge and strong winds damaged thousands of houses.

During the storm, Hatteras Island in North Carolina was breached, creating an inlet that was later named Isabel Inlet. More than 700,000 residents lost power across the state.

The tree damage and tree loss in eastern North Carolina was staggering. In some areas near the Albemarle Sound, it appeared that one of every two or three trees was blown down by the storm.

In Virginia, then-Gov. Mark R. Warner stated that Isabel is “probably the worst storm in a generation.” Much of the state experienced varying degrees of tree damage, and the eastern portions of the state experienced record-breaking tidal flooding and damaging surf. The damage at Colonial Beach rivaled that caused by Hurricane Hazel. In Old Town Alexandria, the storm surge on the Potomac River topped the record in 1933 by the Potomac-Chesapeake Hurricane.

Hatteras Island in North Carolina was breached during Hurricane Isabel. (USGS) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post Hatteras Island in North Carolina was breached during Hurricane Isabel. (USGS)

During the height of the storm, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge tunnel recorded a wind gust of 87 mph. Norfolk recorded a peak wind gust of 83 mph and Quantico, Va., recorded a gust of 78 mph. Rainfall was heaviest in western Virginia, where Sherando, Va., in Augusta County received more than 20″.

In D.C., the peak wind gust was recorded at 71 mph by the National Academy of Science. At Reagan National Airport, the peak wind gust reached 58 mph.

It was estimated that more than 1,500 trees fell during the storm in the immediate D.C. area, many landing on homes and cars. At the White House, a tree fell in the front garden.

Tidal flooding occurred at the Washington Navy Yard and the water level reached a record 11.3 feet above normal at the Wisconsin Avenue gauge, which exceeded the record set by the hurricane of 1933.

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