The Heat Is Online

Northeastern U.S. Suffers Unusually Soggy Spring

Sodden spring proves overwhelming

Uprooted trees, sinkhole caused by latest burst of rain

The Washington Post, June 21, 2003

WASHINGTON, June 21 -- Dulles International Airport has never had a rainier spring. At Reagan National, there have been more wet days this year than in any for at least half a century. And by other measures, too, this showery season is breaking records.

It is also wearing out the Doppler radar at the National Weather Service's forecast office in Sterling. Recent months of severe storms have given the equipment such a workout that it's acting up, in part because technicians can't take it out of service for preventive maintenance.


As more than half an inch of rain accumulated yesterday, Montgomery County fire crews pulled a car to safety from a flooded road in Clarksburg and said the driver was lucky she was not swept away. Across the region, a slew of cars slid across roadways, hydroplaning into fender benders and minor accidents. Trees fell across two major roads in Northwest Washington, their roots loosened by ground saturation. Frederick officials reported a newly opened sinkhole 30 feet wide and 13 feet deep in a residential neighborhood.

A 36-inch sanitary sewer line ruptured on Indian Head Highway near Fort Washington, releasing about 9,000 gallons of sewage and rainwater. In Alexandria, officials announced that they would make sandbags available for pickup in flood-prone Old Town.

Weather-related speed restrictions slowed Maryland and Virginia commuter trains. And the rain has delayed roadwork, deluged basements, turned the Potomac River muddy brown and canceled numerous outdoor events. More stormy weather is predicted for today.

WEATHER WEARY

"It's just never-ending," said meteorologist Andy Woodcock of the National Weather Service. And lest anyone think he enjoys delivering this news, Woodcock added: "Weathermen are people, too. They like to go outside and do things."

Meteorologists can describe the pattern that has caused most of the cool, rainy weather: The jet stream is drooping south, when it usually sits up north at this time of year. They have theories as to why -- perhaps it is linked to Indian Ocean temperatures -- but they are not certain. There are hints, however, that the situation is about to change, after the arrival of summer today.

"The North American continent has got to heat up at some point enough to push the jet stream further north," said Jerry Stenger, research coordinator for the Virginia state climatologist's office. "We have seen some indications that this is in the process of happening."

Said Kenneth Pickering, the Maryland state climatologist: "There seems to be a major shift in the pattern going on right now. I think it will begin to feel much more like summer this coming week."

According to the Weather Service, tomorrow will be a transition to more tranquil weather. There could be thunderstorms later next week, perhaps a harbinger of the typical Washington summer sequence of hot, steamy days followed by late-afternoon cloudbursts.

RECORD RAINFALL

Dulles had the rainiest spring since record-keeping began in 1962: more than 22 inches. It also broke its rainfall record for the first 19 days of June by more than an inch, for a total of 7.67 inches. "We didn't beat it," Woodcock said. "We obliterated it."

Stenger pulled 54 years of data for Reagan National, finding more wet days in the first half of this year (80) than in any previous year. "And June isn't over yet," he added. Woodcock said it has been the wettest spring at the airport in 50 years, with 19.5 inches of rain through Thursday, and the wettest June in at least 56 years with 6.59 inches as of Thursday.

In Frederick, officials said the road with the giant sinkhole would be closed at least through early next week. The round hole opened up across both northbound lanes of New Design Road late Thursday.

By early yesterday, yellow-lined asphalt lay like pie pastry across the top of the hole. The sinkhole hampered access to a shopping center and subdivision, county police said, and two vehicles that had been driving over the spot suffered minor damage. One motorist was slightly injured but refused treatment.

"We've have had an inordinate amount of rain. A lot of water, a lot of rainfall, and that'll happen," said Donnie Crum, Frederick Highway Operations assistant superintendent.

A sinkhole is a geological fluke that occurs when rushing groundwater erodes the walls of underground chambers in bedrock, causing whatever is overhead to crash through. Frederick County has hundreds of sinkholes, more than any other jurisdiction in the state, due in part to its Swiss cheeselike geology.

FALLING TREES

The ground is so saturated that even previously stable trees are falling over as they lose their footing in the soft ground. In the District, officials believe that 800 trees on public and private land went down in Southeast alone during a thunderstorm last week. "We estimate at least $150,000 extra in costs from these storms of a week ago to today -- at least," said Bill Rice, spokesman for the city's Department of Transportation.

In Richmond, Virginia Deputy Natural Resources Secretary David K. Paylor announced one beneficial byproduct of all the rain: For the first time since last summer's record drought, the state's groundwater supplies are now at or above median levels.

Paylor said the U.S. Geological Survey, the official arbiter of statewide groundwater levels, informed him this week that recent rain helped Virginia reach a "fairly significant" milestone in recovering from the 2002 drought.

"This definitely gets some reserves built into the system that should see us through some dry periods," said Paylor.

Washington copes with rainy weather

Unusually wet season could lead to severe flooding later

The Washington Post, June 19, 2003

WASHINGTON, June 19 -- It has slowed highway construction, flooded basements, brought out more mosquitoes and fewer tourists, made golf courses unplayable and destroyed soybean and watermelon crops.

Seemingly all aspects of everyday life - large and small -- have been altered by the rainy weather that has stolen spring. Raindrops have canceled soccer games, quashed pool parties and ruined al fresco dinners. Kids are going stir crazy, restaurants and carwashes are losing business, potholes are swallowing compact cars. And it may take more than the first sunny day to dry things out.

"I feel like I've been beaten down by it," Sarah Hammond, 33, said as she sat, forlorn, the only person to take one of the wet chairs outside a Dupont Circle Starbucks yesterday. Even her two Labradors, Olive and Laney, seemed in the dumps.

As bad as it's been, the experts warn that it could get worse. The wet pattern has lasted so long that as the tropical season gets started -- and that's when Washington gets most of its warm-weather rain -- dangerous and severe flooding could result.

"Any additional rainfall doesn't have many places to go except over the banks," said Joseph Hoffman, executive director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

MORE THAN SEATTLE

Even with yesterday's hopeful peek of sunshine, the numbers are astounding: Since May 1, the Washington area has had 11.93 inches of rain, more than twice the normal 5.61 inches at Reagan National Airport. That is nine times the amount of rain Seattle got during the same period.

Yes, Seattle.

Since May 1, 90 percent of the days have been cloudy and nearly two-thirds of those days have had measurable rain. The string of miserable days amazes even the grizzled experts.

"It's pretty impressive," said Christopher A. Strong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Typically, most summer precipitation in the Washington area comes from tropical storms. "If we keep with this weather pattern and have any kind of tropical weather, we would have major flooding, because everything is running so high," Strong said.

Already, the near-record rainfall is taking its toll. The weather washed out about 20 days of work on the region's traffic-choked highways. A major traffic shift that was scheduled for three weeks ago at the Springfield Mixing Bowl has been delayed because crews couldn't pave or stripe, said Joan Morris, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The wet weather has prevented permanent pothole patches, grass mowing and even guardrail repair. In Loudoun County, crews have spent 90 percent of their time unclogging storm drains and repairing gravel roads that have washed out and not on scheduled road projects, Morris said.

AGRICULTURAL IMPACT

Farmers, too, have spent the season on unexpected chores. David Holshouser, a soybean specialist with Virginia Tech, said the rain has delayed the state's harvest of winter wheat and barley, which in turn has delayed planting more than 30 percent of the state's 500,000 acres of soybean fields.

Clif Slade, a vegetable specialist at Virginia Tech's Tidewater Agricultural Center at Suffolk, said about 25 percent of the seedless watermelon, cantaloupe and sweet corn fields in the southeastern part of the state are submerged. "It's giving us a fit right now," Slade said.

Amateur growers are struggling as well. "On the one hand, it's been great, particularly for bog- and swamp-loving plants. On the other hand, my poor peonies!" said Corbin Harwood of the Garden Club of Chevy Chase.

Even if the sun comes out, mosquitoes may chase Harwood and other gardeners back inside. Maryland officials are reporting elevated mosquito counts in coastal areas and expect the same inland.

The weather has punished businesses that rely on fun in the sun and rewarded firms that take care of too much water.

Waterproofers and wet basement companies can't even return calls to desperate customers.

"We can't handle the calls," lamented Matthew Miller, owner of Custom Drainage Systems in Great Falls. Generally, Miller's small company repairs four or five flooded homes a week. But now, Miller said, "we're getting over 30 calls a day. I can't call them all back. It's just too much. It's not even fun anymore."

HEALTH BENEFITS, DRAWBACKS

The weather has also affected people's health -- in ways both good and bad. For those allergic to grass pollen, the rains have been a boon. "The water washes pollen out of the air," said Michael R. Kletz, a Virginia allergist. But for those who are allergic to mold, it's terrible. The constant bleakness also can run people down mentally. "It's called seasonal affective disorder, and it usually happens in the wintertime, but there are people who are being affected by it now," said David J. Fischer, a District psychiatrist.

Rita Gunther, who runs the Carter Barron Amphitheater at Rock Creek Park, said the rain wreaked havoc with "Hamlet," this summer's Shakespeare production. Of the 10 performances scheduled, one was canceled outright, another was ended an hour into the play and a third was stopped a half-hour before the hero's fatal duel with Laertes that ends the play.

"On those occasions when we've actually squeezed a show in, it has been great," Gunther said.

The region's myriad golfers have been hard-pressed to squeeze in a round. It's so muddy that golf carts have been grounded at the Beechtree Golf Club in Aberdeen.

High school graduation ceremonies have been forced from football fields into humid gyms and auditoriums, making tickets more scarce and keeping extended family away.

At Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Principal Marion Spraggins, who is retiring after 33 years, said she hopes it won't rain for her last graduation ceremony. "We're hoping for sunshine and a little breeze to dry up the field," she said.

NOT ALL BAD NEWS

The news is not all bad. Reservoirs are filled and the drought is over. Torrential rain will keep jellyfish from the shores.

And some even wonder whether the weather pattern is part of some higher plan.

Pastor Duncan McIntosh of First Baptist Church of Silver Spring notes that rainy Sundays fill the pews.

"There's no telling what may lure them on a nice day," he said.

Staff writers Annie Gowen, Ernesto Londoño, Griff Witte, Elaine Rivera and William Wan contributed to this report.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company