09/29/2011 08:16 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2011

D.C. Disaster Planning: Direct Hit By Category 2 Hurricane Unlikely In Capital

WASHINGTON -- Wednesday's D.C.-wide, full-scale simulation of a Category 2 hurricane taking a direct hit on the city might lead area residents to wonder: How likely is the nation's capital to be impacted by such a storm?

Not very likely, said Michael Kistler, hurricane modeler and director of Model Solutions for Risk Management Solutions. But it's not completely out of the question.

"Based upon the RMS 2011 U.S. Hurricane Model, we estimate that wind speeds between 60-70 miles per hour are rare in the District of Columbia, on the order of once per hundred years," Kistler told The Huffington Post. "Areas closer to the Atlantic coast have significantly higher risk from hurricane-force winds, while regions further inland have less wind risk than at the coast."

According to the National Hurricane Center, a Category 2 hurricane has sustained winds of 96-110 mph. People, pets, and livestock are in a lot of danger during Category 2 hurricanes -- as are mobile homes and poorly-constructed homes. Trees, signage, stone walls, windows, roofs, swimming pools -- all may be pretty well ruined. Power will almost certainly go out; drinking water, even, may be scarce, as "filtration systems begin to fail."

The latest big storm, Irene, hit D.C. with 60 mph wind gusts (winds gusts reached 72 mph in Maryland). Sustained winds at Reagan National Airport reached 41 mph, the threshold for a tropical storm, but only briefly. The last actual hurricane to hit D.C. was Hurricane Hazel, in 1954. Hazel brought D.C. wind gusts up to 98 mph. During that storm, National Airport recorded sustained winds of 78 miles an hour.

While wind is one way to mark the strength of a hurricane, storm surge and flooding are other indicators of a storm's impact. Low-lying areas of the nation's capital, especially along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, can be inundated during and after a storm. During the 1933 Chesapeake-Potomac hurricane, the tidal surge on the Potomac was 11 feet. One of the scenarios practiced during Wednesday's drill, according to DCist, was the flooding of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Southeast. A mock portable morgue was set up that could hold 48 bodies.

"There are relatively few storms that have hit Washington, D.C., head-on," said Kistler. "But it happens. I would compare it to rolling a die. On any given year it could happen."