Preparing for the “I” of the Storm: Isabel, Ivan, Ike, Irene – and Now Isaac

Written by Sarene Marshall on . Posted in Learn, Your Climate Stories

Warnings of tropical storms forming far off in the Atlantic, as are typical this time of year, capture the attention of many of us.

The reasons for our interest vary: Some of us need to prepare for potential damages or evacuation, while others are concerned about family or friends that may be in the storm’s path. And still others are just self-described weather geeks, or are simply drawn in by the awesome power of nature.

So, as the eyes of many television viewers turned to coverage of Tropical Storm Isaac – which was just upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane today as it approaches New Orleans – the members of my family,  spread around the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts, have been perhaps slightly more attuned than the average person.

And, a unique additional panic ensues for us when the approaching storm begins with the letter “I.”

Here’s why: in seven short years, four different “I”-named hurricanes have had significant impacts on my family.   

  • On September 19, 2003, Hurricane Isabel hit the Washington, DC area. It was only a Category 1 storm, but its path (up the Potomac River) and its timing (at high tide), resulted in a 9.5-foot storm surge. The house where my husband and I lived at the time was one block from the Potomac River in Alexandria, VA, in a Federal Emergency Management Agency class 1 flood plain.

The storm literally turned our home into a houseboat. We were lucky, because our house was new and elevated, but many of our neighbors in houses built decades earlier had basements or even first floors full of water. Isabel left me with numerous lessons about the power of nature, but especially a deepened concern for the threat of more severe and extreme storms caused by climate change, and the potential futility of traditional built infrastructure as a strategy for protecting us.

Even though one of New Alexandria’s flood gates was four doors from my house, the system could only contain 7.5 feet of water, not the 9.5 feet Isabel delivered. This left me wondering how things might have been during Isabel if more wetlands in Dyke Marsh bordering New Alexandria had been conserved to do what marshes do: soak up floodwaters. With tools like Coastal Resilience, The Nature Conservancy is working with communities to learn how conservation of oyster reefs, wetlands and other natural infrastructure can be a part of coastal protection and disaster preparedness planning.

  • On September 16, 2004, Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Gulf Coast near Mobile, Alabama as a Category 3 storm that spawned tornadoes and was blamed for 64 deaths in the Caribbean and 25 in the United States. Pensacola, Florida, where my mother-in-law lives, caught the full brunt of the storm, sustaining much damage. Her Spanish tiled roof, like those on many of the older homes in the town, was replaced with a blue tarp for many months as she waited for available labor and supplies to repair it.
  • On Sept. 13, 2008, it was Hurricane Ike – one of the costliest to hit the U.S. And Houston, Texas, where my brother-in-law lives, was in the storm’s way. My mother and father-in-law (who happened to be in town for a medical visit when the hurricane landed), were stranded with him and stuck with no electricity for nine days.
  • And finally, on August 27, 2011, the next hurricane to reach the U.S. after Ike was also an “I” storm: Irene made landfall just a year ago on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (where our family has vacationed for many years) and then continued to lumber up the Eastern Seaboard. After flooding coastal areas, this rainmaker lingered on as a tropical cyclone soaking the ground as far north as New York and Vermont. Irene washed out bridges and roads, and downed trees – including a massive hickory in my Virginia backyard that nearly took out our shed.

So, in light of this history, I was especially nervous as my family set out for a brief end-of-summer trip to visit family in Florida last week – just as the first warnings about Tropical Storm Isaac were issued.

What would this tropical system hold in store for us?

It turns out Isaac has taken a turn northwest away from my parent’s house in Southeast Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. Now, our thoughts and prayers for safety are with the people of the Gulf Coast (like my mother-in-law) who are preparing for heavy rains and storm surge nearly seven years to the day since Hurricane Katrina and the devastating flooding of New Orleans.

My closest encounter with the power of these kinds of storms was my first-hand experience with Isabel. Though we ended up selling our New Alexandria home and now live 80 feet above sea level, the memories of that flood will be with us forever. So, too, is my personal commitment to work as hard as I can to help reduce the effects of climate change on hurricanes, coastal flooding and other natural disasters in the world my children will grow up in.

Sarene Marshall is managing director for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team

Featured Photo by: Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video (Satellite image of then-Tropical Storm Isaac on Aug. 24, 2012 as it moved through the Eastern Caribbean) Used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo 2 Courtesy Sarene Marshall (Flooding in Alexandria, VA, after Hurricane Isabel. The black line on the white picket fence shows the high-water mark). 

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