THE WIND — Forget about gentle spring breezes. Winds as strong as 39 mph blasted the Baltimore region yesterday, toppling trees and forcing U.S. Park Service rangers at Fort McHenry to keep close watch on the flagpole at the center of the historic star-shaped fortress.
The wind -- which whipped and whined most of the day -- blew down a large tree along the outer loop of the Beltway between Perring Parkway and Loch Raven Boulevard about 1:20 p.m., said state Trooper Nayim Sadik.
The tree fell across two lanes of the highway, prompting the driver of one vehicle to swerve and strike a lamppost, he said. Another vehicle ran over a branch. No one was injured.
The two lanes were closed for 20 minutes -- causing a mile-long backup -- while state highway crews removed the debris.
It's not everyday that a tree falls across the Beltway, said Sadik, who interviewed the drivers of the two vehicles. "They were really surprised," he said.
The high winds forced rangers at the Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, to do what the British bombardment of 1814 could not -- bring down the large replica of the "stripes and bright stars" flag and replace it with a smaller, less inspiring one.
"We just look up and we can tell by the way the flag is flying if we are at the limit," said chief ranger Charles Strickfaden.
On windy days, he said, rangers watch to make sure flags don't tangle or tear and the flagpole, made from the trunks of two trees, doesn't snap like a toothpick.
To be safe, rangers flew a 5-foot-by-9-foot flag rather than the 30-foot-by-42-foot replica of the Star- Spangled Banner, Strickfaden said. The general rule: No big flags when gusts are stronger than 15 mph.
The National Weather Service clocked winds at 34 knots -- or 39 mph -- at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Strong gusts are typical with the arrival of spring, when temperatures can shift from warm to cold quickly, said meteorologist Howard Silverman. Winds are expected to die down today and tomorrow.
For visitors at the fort -- particularly those from far away -- who hope for a vision of the large patriotic banner, windy days can be disappointing, Strickfaden said.
"That is an important part of the visit to Fort McHenry," he said.