When James Michener needed to conjure an epic storm for his 1978 novel about the Chesapeake Bay, he could draw on all of recorded history—not to mention his considerable imagination. But much of his material for the book’s fictitious “Great Chesapeake Hurricane of 1886” is believed to have come from an actual deluge unleashed 40 years ago this month.
In mid-June 1972, Washingtonians—distracted by the news of five burglars arrested for breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate—might barely have noticed a weather brief about a modest hurricane named Agnes moving north from the Yucatán.
Indeed, by the time Agnes passed the Florida panhandle around June 20, it had been demoted to Tropical Storm Agnes, with winds never again to rise much above 45 miles an hour. Bearing down on the Chesapeake Bay on June 21, the storm had lost the tight, cyclonic integrity of powerful hurricanes: “a big mushy thing,” the Washington Post called it in its understated report on June 21.
In retrospect, “a perfect storm” would have been more apt. Beginning the afternoon of Wednesday, June 21, Agnes would thoroughly soak Maryland and Virginia, then unexpectedly hook back and stall, dropping unimagined rainfall across a region from Richmond to New York state, from West Virginia to New Jersey. That vast acreage overlapped much of the six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed of the Chesapeake and its biggest tributaries, the Susquehanna, Potomac, and James rivers.
A wet winter and spring had saturated the ground throughout the region, so soils couldn’t absorb much of Agnes’s sodden fury. The result was “the most massive flooding in the history of the eastern United States,” according to the Federal Office of Emergency Preparedness. Agnes killed 122 people in its path—16 in the Washington area—and destroyed so many homes, bridges, and businesses that it remains one of the costliest storms in US history.
Ecologically, the impact was equally disastrous. The storm came unusually early in hurricane season, when the Chesapeake’s fish and aquatic plants were reproducing and at their most vulnerable. In the course of ten days, Agnes blasted the bay with as much polluting sediment, which washed down its tributaries, as the estuary normally receives in a quarter century. Some scientists think that this and other forces unleashed by the floods “tipped” North America’s greatest estuary into a widespread decline from which it has never completely recovered.
Flash flooding was the first punch. Rain pelted the Washington area, up to an inch an hour from Wednesday evening through Thursday, June 22. Few streams rose faster than DC’s Rock Creek. At the nearby National Zoo, director Theodore Reed leapt into the wolf enclosure to save a pup from drowning.
The volume of water cannonballing down Rock Creek was double that of any storm in recorded history. Motorists by the hundreds along Rock Creek Parkway, Canal Road, and the Whitehurst Freeway were forced to run or swim from cars or were trapped inside or swept to their deaths as water went from hubcap-deep to above windowsill level in minutes.
In Virginia, the Occoquan River jumped six feet above its dam and gouged a new channel around one end. Some 1,600 people, the bulk of them in Prince William County, were made homeless by the flooding, and thousands more evacuated as streams where toddlers usually splashed engulfed subdivisions. Most homeowners in 1972 had no flood insurance.
Outside Baltimore, a young mother in the upscale Ruxton suburb was blocked by floodwater roaring down the Jones Falls stream valley as she attempted to evacuate her three children, ages seven months to 3½ years. As she frantically tried to extricate them from their safety seats, the flood swept her away and filled the car. Rescuers found her later, still alive and huddled in the branches of a downstream tree. The children had drowned.
Greater floods were building as the storm cleared out on Friday, June 23. Agnes had dumped as much as 18 inches of rain in some places and a foot in many others, but the real story was its scope. Never in eastern North America had a storm rained so hard across so many thousands of square miles—enough, it was calculated, to add two feet of water across the 2,500-square-mile Chesapeake if the bay had been a reservoir, dammed at the mouth.
On Friday, June 23, reporting on Agnes for the Baltimore Sun, I got a look at what was headed for Washington as I crawled on hands and knees along a railroad bridge at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where the Shenandoah River normally slid peaceably, clear and shallow, into the Potomac. The bridge was vibrating hard enough that I didn’t feel confident to stand to snap a photo. A loaded coal train had been parked there in hopes that the weight would help anchor the bridge.
Where the two rivers collided thunderously in angry, brown foam, they created acres of standing waves several feet high. I had grown up among watermen on the Chesapeake and recall thinking that the best of their boats would be made matchsticks in this normally canoeable spot.
In Washington, the Potomac River crested Saturday, June 24—made chocolate with topsoil washed from a nearly 15,000-square-mile watershed and swollen to about twice its normal width. Refrigerators from Pennsylvania, pieces of turkey houses from West Virginia, caskets from a local mortician—the quantity and diversity of the debris moving downstream were remarkable. From the Watergate, the Washington Post noted, “residents sipped champagne and watched the show.”