2003 Md. weather set records, repeatedly

Wet: Precipitation came as rain and snow and was driven by tropical winds.

January 01, 2004|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Imagine the panic in Maryland last New Year's Day had we been told that 2003 would bring us the worst blizzard on record; the snowiest February; the coldest winter and rainiest summer in a quarter-century; followed by gales, tornadoes and a tropical storm that would destroy 522 homes.

Yet all that and more came to pass in the wettest year since recordkeeping began in Baltimore in 1871.

Andy Woodcock, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Sterling, Va., confessed that 2003 was a "pretty intense" year for forecasting in Maryland.

On the other hand, Woodcock once spent three years forecasting in southwestern Arizona: "That was just horrible. ... We once went six months without a cloud [in the] sky. That, professionally, is not what I went to school for."

Maryland's meteorological annus horribilis began with a winter that had already delivered 22 inches of snow before the big Presidents Day weekend storm blew into town - four inches more than the city's annual average.

The big, complex and slow-moving storm began late on Friday the 14th, with light to moderate snow and rain. There was more snow Saturday, then a pause.

When it resumed Sunday, the snow fell at up to 4 inches an hour, sometimes with thunder. More than 21 inches fell that day. Four more fell Monday (Presidents Day) and Tuesday. Garrett County had 3 to 4 feet in places.

"I don't think anybody thought it would be that bad," said Bob Evergart, 40, a heavy equipment operator who has worked for Baltimore City half his life.

Making the streets passable meant 12-hour shifts at the wheel of a plow, a few hours' sleep and back on the streets. And still it kept snowing.

"It seemed like it was never-ending," he said. "Every time you'd get it cleared, it seemed like it just came back again." Eventually, not even the overtime pay seemed worth it.

When the snow finally relented at midday on Tuesday, the 18th, the stuff was 20 to 32 inches deep.

Cars, buses, streets and runways were shut down. Homeowners dug for their cars, only to have their work plowed back into their laps.

28.2 inches at BWI

Officially, at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, the storm left 28.2 inches, the heaviest snowfall since modern snow records began here in 1883. The legendary Knickerbocker storm of 1922 (26.5 inches) was bumped to second place.

It was days before most people got to work. Schools and courts closed. Snowplows broke down. And, worse, at least eight people in Baltimore and its suburbs died of heart attacks while shoveling out.

Five adults and four children were killed by carbon monoxide as they sat in snowbound cars. Five people lost digits to snow blowers. And more than 100 buildings - most notably the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore - suffered roof collapses under the burden of snow.

Three days after the snow stopped, more than 2 1/2 inches of cold rain fell. It soaked the snow cover, and that triggered more roof failures, street flooding and wet basements. Commuter traffic, when it resumed, was snarled for days, hemmed in by high snowbanks.

By month's end, the February snow total came to 40.5 inches. It was the snowiest February - indeed the snowiest month - on record in Baltimore.

Mercifully, March was snow-free, aside from a few flurries on the Orioles' opening day at Camden Yards. The season ended with 58.1 inches of snow, second only to the record winter of 1995-1996, when 62.5 inches fell at BWI.

April was the last month in 2003 to fall short of normal rains. May brought nearly 7 inches more, severe thunderstorms and, in Southern Maryland, tornado warnings. There were just seven clear days in all of May and June, amid stretches of eight, 10 and 12 rainy days.

The spring deluge topped off reservoirs depleted by the record drought of 2001-2002. But the rains took no summer vacation. Seventeen inches of rain fell from June through August - a half-foot of surplus. It was the 16th-wettest summer in Baltimore since 1871.

Cool and overcast

Nearly half the summer was overcast - 40 days in all. The good news was that daily high temperatures never topped 93, and only 14 days saw highs of 90 or more. The year before, 44 days hit the 90s.

August ended with violent thunderstorms and 150,000 power outages in the Baltimore area. But worse was coming.

Isabel became the season's fourth hurricane on Sept. 7. A week later it was front-page news in Maryland, with 155-mph winds drawing a bead on the Middle Atlantic coast.

By the time it crashed ashore in North Carolina on Sept. 18, the storm had weakened, with top sustained winds of just 105 mph. Its gusts never topped 55 mph at BWI, and its rains totaled just 2.21 inches, well below forecasts.

But Isabel's northward track across Western Maryland sent winds blowing hard up the Chesapeake Bay, creating a record storm surge. Just before dawn on Friday the 19th, the high tide came in. And then it just kept rising, reaching 8 feet above normal at Fort McHenry, 7 feet at Annapolis and 11 feet at Washington, D.C.

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