Hurricane Isabel: Looking back 20 years later

By on September 18, 2023

By: Heather Eckstine | WTKR News 3
This story is brought to you through our news gathering partnership with WTKR News 3.

On Sept. 18, 2003, Hurricane Isabel barreled its way up the coast of North Carolina and Virginia, leaving 17 dead, hundreds of thousands without power, and destroying homes and businesses.

But that was just the beginning. Let’s take you back.

Isabel became the 9th named storm of the Atlantic Hurricane Season on Sep. 6, 2003. Intensifying rapidly, Isabel was a Category 5 by Sept. 11. People boarded up their homes and watched the waves come in as Isabel was coming in off the coast.

As it weakened, it made landfall as a Category 2 at Drum Inlet, just south of Cape Hatteras, on the North Carolina coast. Isabel pushed storm surges of six to eight feet across the Outer Banks, leveling houses, destroying piers and flooding highways.

Now known as NC Highway 12, “Isabel Inlet” stranded people on Hatteras Island for weeks. It wasn’t until November when the island was open to the public again.

Left in the dark, over 700,000 lost power in North Carolina. A federal disaster was declared in 36 North Carolina counties, with the economic loss totaling an estimated $5 billion.

Dare County saw the heaviest impact as storm surge flooding and heavy winds damaged thousands of homes.

As Isabel moved up the coast with Hampton Roads in sight, some evacuated while others chose to stay. As sand started to swirl and buildings at the Virginia beach Oceanfront began to come apart, businesses were boarded up and tried to keep good spirits.

The Virginia coast saw storm surges up to six feet as the Oceanfront boardwalk vanished under sweeps of waves as trees toppled over onto power lines, homes and cars.

During the height of the storm, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel recorded wind gusts of 87 miles per hour. Harrison’s Fishing Pier, the original Ocean View Fishing Pier, was destroyed by the hurricane’s waves and wind.

Isabel’s power was felt as far north as Long Island as the storm’s path cut through the mid-atlantic and into Ohio.

Seventeen people lost their lives during the storm due to drowning or falling trees and limbs. An estimated 35 others were killed by the storm indirectly.

The Washington Post called Isabel “one of the most damaging storms to impact the Mid-Atlantic since Agnes in 1972 and Hazel in 1954.”

After the hurricane, the name Isabel was retired from use.


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