When Inner Harbor tides are acting funny, look out

July 22, 2000|By JACQUES KELLY

The movie, "The Perfect Storm," is based upon a real incident in the fall of 1991, an event that is today synonymous with killer waves and lives lost at sea.

As that storm churned away offshore in the Atlantic, I couldn't convince anyone it was a big story. People thought I was crazy.

For years I've observed that the really bad storms, the ones that bring death and destruction, are largely not yelled about by the broadcast media. The worst false alarms are the ones trumpeted loud and long by the television stations in the last two weeks of August, when any ripple on the ocean during vacation season is accompanied by electronic media battery.

But let the tourists go home and all grows silent. And despite signs from the heavens, we don't always notice what is spinning about us.

My sister Ann, who lives in Delaware near the Atlantic, tipped me off that October that there were strange happenings. She reported the tides were running in strange ways and certain marshes that never flood were ominously covered by water. And this had gone on for days.

I'm not an expert on the way that tides run, but they do run in peculiar ways. As the swordfish fishing boat portrayed in the movie was being buffeted around the North Atlantic that fall, something funny was happening in Baltimore. But if you looked out a window, all you would have seen was October's bright blue weather.

Water filled up the low-lying parts of the city in ways I had never seen before. In fact, parts of Fells Point were flooding (not enough to endanger life and limb but still wet) and the brick walk between the two Harborplace pavilions had standing water, too. There were puddles and water backups in places that are normally high and dry.

I mentioned all this to my editors. They looked at me and said, in as many words, call us when something important happens. Do you expect us to take a picture of five or six inches of water and some floating potato-chip bags at Pratt and Light streets? Come back when you get a real story. Finally, on Halloween 1991, a wire service story appeared on the inside pages of the paper, "Storm batters East Coast."

The Perfect Storm in Baltimore coincided with some spectacularly lush fall weather, azure skies, light breezes, low humidity and golden light. The water that crept up Caroline Street alongside what is today's Living Classrooms Foundation made the old city neighborhood look like Venice - and the goldenrod weeds and city wildflowers made the scene all the more pretty.

My father, a longtime Baltimore weather observer, claims you detect the moods of the weather best by climbing Federal Hill and looking out at the harbor. A native of South Baltimore, he watched the paths of some of the great 1930s storms from this vantage point. If the harbor is mean and whipped up - or the tides are unusually high, despite the presence of blue skies - you can be sure there will be real trouble in the Atlantic.

His observations are proven by some high-water marks I've seen when old buildings on the waterfront are being repaired. I think of a day, perhaps 25 years ago, when the Chart House Restaurant was being refurbished. Workmen were removing some partitions and located the paint marks and written notations of the high-water marks of the 1920s and 1930s. For fun, I jotted down the dates and checked the newspaper files. To a one, when the water was high on Pratt Street, the waves were ripping into Ocean City.

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