In Bethesda, We’ve Seen a Thing or Two

If you live in a place long enough—and I’ve lived in Bethesda now for 30 years—you are bound to experience many unusual, even amazing things.

A few days ago, what seemed like just another summer storm unleashed a deluge of historic proportions. Between 3 and 4 inches of rain fell on Bethesda within an hour; some nearby areas received more than 5 inches. Roads turned into rivers and cars became boats. And, of course, it happened during the morning rush.

A month earlier, another unexpectedly strong storm peppered us with gumball-sized hail before flattening an 18-foot section of fence in our yard, ripping out nails, tearing apart a 2×4 stringer, and snapping a 4×4 post.

Hurricanes have pummeled us. Earthquakes have rattled us. Violent storms have slammed us. Tornados have struck not far from home. The Potomac River has reached historic flood levels time and again.

Here are a few of the natural events we’ve experienced since I moved to Bethesda in 1989.

The Microburst

A microburst is a localized column of sinking air within a thunderstorm that plummets to the ground and spreads out in all directions at speeds that can reach or even exceed 100 miles per hour—equivalent to an EF-1 tornado. The microburst phenomenon first gained widespread attention in 1985, when one caused a Delta Air Lines flight to crash on its approach to Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport.

On June 14, 1989, as I headed to the subway after work in Washington, D.C., the sky darkened and what at first seemed like a typical late-afternoon thunderstorm let loose. The wind began blowing so hard that the rain seemed to fall sideways. I got soaked. When I emerged from the subway in Bethesda half an hour later, the sky was blue and the sun was shining—and there was devastation all around. Mature trees had been toppled. Powerlines were lying across streets.

Later identified as a microburst, winds exceeding 80 miles per hour had ripped through Bethesda and Northwest Washington, blowing down thousands of trees and limbs and knocking out power to 150,000 homes. It was the worst damage the area had seen in nearly a century. Our power was out for three days, others’ for much longer.

The Blizzard and Flood of 1996

In early January, one of the worst East Coast snow storms on record hit the Washington region. On January 8, the snow on our back deck measured 22 inches deep. The weather station nearby measured 25 inches, making this our 4th biggest snowfall ever. Two days later a couple more inches fell. Two days after that, another half a foot. A week later, the temperature shot up, and that nearly 3 feet of accumulated snow began to melt—fast. Within a week it was gone.

Nearly 15,000 square miles of snowmelt, from as far away as West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania suddenly drained into the Potomac River. The river level at nearby Little Falls crested at more than 19 feet above flood stage—the 5th highest level ever recorded and the worst flood since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Sue and I went down to nearby Lock 5 on the C&O Canal; it was underwater (see photo above). The river extended like a vast lake from where we stood all the way to the Virginia shore. The extensive damage to the 185-mile-long canal would take years to repair.

If that wasn’t enough, about nine months later, Hurricane Fran unleased another deluge on the region, causing the 7th highest river level at Little Falls, at just under 18 feet.

The Return of Brood X

The buzz of cicadas is an iconic seasonal sound around here. You can hear a few of them sawing away throughout the summer months. But every 13 or 17 years, a huge population of cicadas called a brood arrives like some science fiction nightmare.

Billions of these fat, ugly insects, up to 2 inches long, emerge from pencil-wide holes in the earth, where they have been feeding all those years. They crawl up anything they can find nearby: trees, walls, fences, even you if you stand still long enough. Then, like something out of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a cicada’s body splits open and a new insect emerges, winged and red-eyed, and then flies away, its hollow carcass still clinging to the wall or tree.

The cicadas lumber clumsily through the air, smacking into doors, walls, windows, you. I’ve resorted to batting them away with a racquetball racquet. They settle into trees and bushes and commence with their shrill buzzing.

The notorious Brood X (how creepy does that sound?) last emerged in 2004. (The X stands for 10—there are 15 known broods of periodic cicadas in eastern North America.) They began appearing in our yard on May 13. By May 22, their buzz-saw din was so piercing that at times I had to wear earplugs when I went outside.

For about five weeks, the cicadas did what cicadas do: make an ungodly racket, mate, and lay eggs. Then in a disgusting finale, they all died. Suddenly, driveways, sidewalks, and streets were littered with billions of big crunchy insect bodies.

Beware: Brood X will return again in 2022.

Earthquake!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011, was my weekly work-at-home day. I was sitting outside at our patio table with my laptop, when, just after 1:50 p.m., the boards of the deck beneath me began to shake. I had experienced minor tremors before, both in New England and Bethesda. So I quickly concluded that this was one too. But this one was different. The shaking got stronger and just kept going.

I stood up, one hand on the table to steady myself. I wish I had had the presence of mind to step down off the deck to feel what it was like on the ground. But I expected the shaking to stop at any moment. Instead, it went on and on. It must have continued for at least 40 seconds before it finally stopped.

In Washington, D.C., plaster rained down from the vaulted ceiling of Union Station, carved stone pinnacles and gargoyles crashed to the ground around Washington National Cathedral, and mortar shook loose from between the stones of the Washington Monument, panicking the tourists inside the swaying structure. Amazingly, no one was killed or seriously injured. Eight years later, damage to the cathedral is still being repaired.

The earthquake’s magnitude measured 5.8 on the seismic scale. That may not seem like a big deal to a Californian, but it was the strongest earthquake east of the Rocky Mountains since 1944, and the strongest ever recorded to emanate from the seismic zone of central Virginia. From its epicenter northwest of Richmond, the earthquake was felt as far south as Georgia, as far north as Maine and Canada, and as far west as Chicago. It may have been the most widely felt earthquake in U.S. history.

The Derecho

In the Washington area, 2012 would smash the record for the warmest year of all time, and the summer of 2012 would be the third hottest ever. By the end of June, we were already entering our hottest 11-day stretch ever recorded. On June 29 the temperature hit 104°. And then things unexpectedly got even worse.

Before the night of June 29–30, 2012, hardly anyone other than a meteorologist had ever heard of an especially violent kind of storm called a derecho. Strong summer storms are not uncommon around here. But no one—not even the meteorologists—had expected the powerful, fast-moving storm front that slammed like a tsunami into Washington that night.

The storm front formed in the Midwest on that tropically hot day and moved eastward, picking up speed like a bowling ball rolling downhill. As it raced toward the Mid-Atlantic, the front covered an astonishing 600 miles in just 10 hours. Instead of dissipating when it hit the Appalachian Mountains as weather watchers expected, it washed over them as though they were merely speed bumps. The derecho bowled onward and into a sleeping Washington.

I got up that night to see what was going on. The trees in our back yard were whipping around wildly. I thought they would surely snap. But the thing I remember most was the sky. The lightning flashes were constant—stroboscopic. I had never seen anything like it. I went back to bed and pulled the pillow over my head. At some point the power went out.

The storm front passed quickly but left a wash of destruction. Wind gusts of 70 to 80 miles per hour blew down trees and powerlines over a vast area, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without electricity during a record heat wave. Sue and I managed by staying during the day in the air-conditioned comfort of the museum where I worked and returning home at night. We closed up the house in the morning, opened all the windows in the evening to let in the modestly cooler night air, and slept downstairs on our sleep sofa. Our power was finally restored on the 4th of July after 5 days and 5 nights of record-breaking heat, the daily highs averaging nearly 100°.

Wild Weather Extremes

Here in the Mid-Atlantic, we have southern summers and northern winters and incomparably beautiful springs. But the seasons can vary a great deal from year to year. We have had bearable summers with many pleasant days and scorching summers with weeks in the 90s and 100s. We have had mild winters with barely any snow and others that rival New England winters. We never know from year to year what we’re going to get.

We often don’t get snow until January, but in 1989 it snowed on Thanksgiving. Sue and I took advantage of the lack of crowds and visited the Washington Monument and the National Zoo. On Thanksgiving 2007, the temperature topped 70°, and we went bicycling on our new bikes.

A week before Christmas 2009, we were buried under 2 feet of snow, our biggest December snowfall ever. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in 2015, temperatures topped 70°. We rode our bikes on the National Mall on Christmas morning wearing shorts and tee shirts.

In 1994 our thermometer dropped as low as -8º in January. In other years it has reached the low 70s in early January. My bicycle commuting season usually ended in late November or early December and began again in March. But some years I biked to work all the way into January, and others I began bike commuting again in mid-February.

We’ve seen many local weather records tied or set. We experienced the 4th biggest snowfall on record (1996), the 6th biggest (2003), the 8th biggest (2009), and the earliest since 1979, on October 29, 2011. We took pictures of snow on cherry blossoms on April 7, 2007.

We’ve lived through the snowiest winter on record in 2010, in which more snow fell than in the past five winters combined. That year also tied with 1980 for the hottest summer on record. The year 2012 smashed the record for our warmest year. We experienced the hottest July (2010), the warmest February and March (2012), the warmest December (2015), the warmest February again, a new record (2017), and the wettest year (2018).

We lost power due to hurricanes or summer or winter storms for one to five days in January 1999 (ice storm), August 2003 (Hurricane Isabel), July 2010 (violent thunderstorm), January 2011 (heavy snowfall), August 2011 (Hurricane Irene), and June 2012 (derecho).

So yes, to paraphrase those wacky Farmers Insurance TV commercials (in which actor J.K. Simmons recounts stories of “unbelievable but true insurance claims”), here in Bethesda we’ve seen a thing or two. And who knows what we’ll see next.

David Romanowski, 2019

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