Q&A with Great Storms of the Chesapeake author David Healey

Local author David Healey always has an eye on history, and recently he wrote a book about the Chesapeake Bay’s legendary hurricanes, blizzards, fogs and freezes. Whenever possible in the pages of Great Storms of the Chesapeake, he focused on how the weather impacted the people who lived—or didn’t live—through the storms. 


How far back does the book go?


I focused on the last 400 years, which is really the scope of European settlement here on the Chesapeake Bay. The book starts off with how William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest was likely inspired by stories about New World storms—particularly a hurricane that shipwrecked the future governor of the Virginia colony. You can imagine how these wild, wild storms captured the imagination back home in England. One of the worst storms of all time on Chesapeake Bay struck in 1667 and was quite devastating to early Marylanders and Virginians.


What was the worst blizzard here?


Though it would be hard to beat the record snowfall of the 2009-2010 winter, if you look to the 1800s there are a couple of storms that really knocked Marylanders back on their heels. For example, the blizzard of 1888 devastated coastal areas from the Chesapeake up to New England. But I think the blizzard of 1899 was particularly noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, it was bitterly cold with temperatures in the single digits. Second, the snow lasted over several days so it was hard to dig out. Drifts piled up in downtown Baltimore and reportedly up to the second-story windows of homes west of the city. It was the cusp of the modern era with telephones and H.L. Mencken traipsing through the snow as a cub reporter, and yet we had to rely on shovels and horses to clear the roads and streets. By the time the next big storm hit in the 1920s we had cars and snowplows on trucks.


Can we expect the weather to get even wilder?


That’s the question no one can really answer. There’s so much talk about climate change, and we’ve certainly had a run of very hot summers, but as a writer I discovered that weather does seem to follow certain trends or patterns that can last for decades. There are scientists called paleotempestologists—you’ve got to love that term—who study ancient storms looking for clues from the past that can be used to predict future trends. My advice would be to listen to the forecast and take it seriously—each storm is unique and the Chesapeake region’s worst weather-related disasters I wrote about in the book came from having a cavalier attitude toward hurricanes, gales and blizzards. In other words, I’d worry less about the trends and more about being prepared when there’s a storm warning. Batten down the hatches!


David Healey is the author of 1812: Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War and several historical novels, including Sharpshooter. Visit him online at www.davidhealey.net.

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