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As Irene closes in on Harford, trees fall on homes, roads closed, some evacuated, no one injured

Abingdon, Bel Air, Constant Friendship and Joppa incidents; storm hotline activated at 410-838-5800

BY KAYLA BAWROSKI, MARISSA GALLO, BRYNA ZUMER, KIRSTEN DIZE

10:40 PM EDT, August 27, 2011

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As Hurricane Irene advanced toward Harford County Saturday evening, firefighters and other emergency responders were being kept busy responding to calls of wires down, utility poles on fire, at least one electric transformer knocked out and several trees falling into or onto houses, causing structural damages, officials reported.

As of about 10:15 p.m., sections of four Harford County roads were closed. Johnson Mill Road, Pine Street in Edgewood, Stafford Road in Susquehanna State Park and Wheel Road between Cedar Lane and Laurel Bush Road.The Bay Brook neighborhood in Havre de Grace, prone to flooding because Lily Run flows through it, was evacuated Saturday evening, according to Ben Lloyd, a spokesman for the Harford County government.

In addition, at about 9:40 p.m. Saturday the flash flood warning for Harford County was extended until 3:30 a.m. Sunday.

"Several reports of trees on homes with structural damage," Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, wrote in a text message. Gardiner said they were primarily in Abingdon, Bel Air and Joppa. "No injuries related to storm for now." That was as of about 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

At about the same time, BGE officials were reporting the company had restored power to about 24,000 customers, but Harford County was not yet among the hardest hit areas. That was expected to change.

Rachel Lighty, a spokesperson for BGE, wrote in an email that "the utility expects the number of outages to increase significantly overnight as the peak of the storm passes through Central Maryland late this evening and into Sunday morning."

A big part of the problem was what Harford County was beginning to experience with fallen trees.

"Saturated ground coupled with a heavy tree canopy and high wind has caused whole trees and tree limbs to come down onto power lines and other electric equipment," Lighty wrote.

That scenario was expected to be repeated countless times before mid-day Sunday.

In advance of Hurricane Irene striking central and northeastern Maryland, Harford County government opened an emergency shelter at Patterson Mill Middle/High School, 85 Patterson Mill Road in Bel Air, beginning at noon Saturday. There were 10 to 15 people at the shelter at about 10 p.m. Saturday, Lloyd said.

According to a news release issued by the county shortly after 1 p.m. Saturday, the shelter is pet friendly, and representatives from the Humane Society and Animal Control will be present to look after pets.

Harford Transit Link operated an emergency shuttle service from five locations until 9 p.m. Saturday to transport residents unable to drive to the shelter. The pick up points were:

Beards Hill Shopping Center – ShopRite Bus Stop (Beards Hill Road at Route 22) in Aberdeen;

Aberdeen Train Station Bus Stop (18 E. Bel Air Ave. at Route 40) in Aberdeen;

Edgewood Recreation and Community Center (1980 Brookside Drive) in Edgewood;

Havre de Grace Senior Activity Center (351 Lewis Lane) in Havre de Grace;

Joppatowne Shopping Center – Dollar Tree Bus Stop (Joppa Farm Road and Route 40) in Joppatowne.

In cases of medical emergency, citizens are advised to call 911.

State of Emergency declared

As Harford County earlier braced for expected impact from Hurricane Irene, the county executive declared a state of emergency.

County schools also canceled all weekend activities.

Harford County Executive David Craig declared a state of emergency late Friday afternoon.

According to an advisory sent to media, all county-owned facilities, including Parks & Recreation facilities, were closed effective at midnight Saturday and will remain closed until further notice. Also closed are all boat launching ramps that are owned by the county.

The emergency shelter that opened at Patterson Mill High School Saturday afternoon is available to any citizen who feels as though they are not safe in their homes.

The Harford County Information Hotline 410-838-5800 began operating at 7 a.m. Saturday. The hotline is available to answer citizens' questions before, during and after the storm, and to relay timely emergency status information.

"Hurricane Irene is a significant storm, and citizens should know that we are taking our preparations very seriously," Craig said. "Our Emergency Operations Center will be staffed with representatives of all county departments, state agencies, law enforcement, fire and EMS, and other emergency management professionals. While we cannot do anything to prevent the storm, we can take steps to lessen its impacts through preparedness, effective coordination, and quick action."

"Citizens should prepare by reviewing their storm survival plan and restock any needed food, water or other supplies to get them through the storm," Craig continued. "In addition, citizens should remove any potential hazards such as debris that could become projectiles in high winds, or that could block storm drains and cause flooding."

"Finally, those residents who will use generators should make sure that there is adequate ventilation so that they are not exposing themselves or their families to deadly carbon monoxide," Craig added.

County residents who own boats that are docked in a body of water are advised that

the National Weather Service is expecting Harford County waterways to be subject to large, battering waves, the county advisory also stated. Boat owners who have not already done so should take appropriate action as soon as possible.

For additional storm preparedness tips, go to the Harford County Division of Emergency Operations website at http://www.harfordpublicsafety.org and click on "Surviving the Storm" icon.

For updated information on storm recovery and road information, visit the Harford County Government website at http://www.harfordcountymd.gov.

Saturday morning in Bel Air

In downtown Bel Air, it seemed like any early late summer Saturday morning, despite the threat of the approaching hurricane.

The Klein's ShopRite on North Main Street in Bel Air was bustling around 9 a.m., not overcrowded, but certainly busy.

Inside, some shelf items like snacks and soup, seemed to be in short supply. A tractor-trailer was being unloaded at the store's loading dock, however, and another stood by on a nearby street.

Most of the chatter in the checkout lines was about the approaching hurricane. One woman said she had just come from the Saturday farmers market at nearby District Court building parking lot and described it as "crowded."

"Good for the farmers," she said, adding, "The rain will probably damage a lot of their crops."

Outside, it was cloudy and drizzling intermittently. The air felt humid, but there was no noticeable wind velocity.

By 1 p.m., some steady rain had fallen in downtown Bel Air and trees and flags were blowing steadily but softly.

A large bank of white to gray clouds hung over Main Street, where traffic appeared steady and most parking spaces were full in the city of town.

Weekend school activities canceled

Harford County Public Schools decided early Friday to cancel all activities in its buildings scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

"Due to the potential severity of Hurricane Irene, all Saturday (8/26/11) and Sunday (8/27/11) HCPS activities have been canceled," Teri Kranefeld, Manager of Communications for Harford County Public Schools, wrote in an email shortly after noon Friday.

Kranefeld had also emphasized that all Friday evening activities will continue as planned.

Gov.Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency on Thursday in advance of the first hurricane of the Atlantic Ocean's storm season, which has been roaring up the eastern seaboard, hitting the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos islands mid-week.

Harford County government sent out a countywide press release and a Connect CTY message Thursday afternoon, telling residents "Hurricane Irene is expected to affect Harford County Saturday evening into Sunday afternoon. The forecast calls for 3 to 6 inches of rain, a storm surge of 1 to 3 feet along the Chesapeake Bay and sustained winds of 35 to 40 mph. Additionally, we could also experience tropical force wind gusts of 50 to 60 mph. Because of the impending storm we could experience widespread power outages in the county."

The Emergency Operations Center will operate Saturday at a Level 1, which means personnel, law enforcement and other first responders will staff the center, according to an e-mail.

The early outlook and plan

If early weather reports are any indication, Irene will bring high winds and heavy rain to the area this weekend. How severe the weather will be and how long it will last is yet to be determined, as the category of the storm could lessen or grow stronger by the time it reaches the state's coast.

As of Thursday evening, accuweather.com reported 4 to 8 inches of rain is possible Saturday through Sunday, with showers and possible thunderstorms overnight into Sunday morning. The storm, according to a map on weather.com, will be a category 2 hurricane with 100 mph winds, and seems to pass by late Sunday afternoon/Sunday night.

Meteorologist Jared Klein, of the National Weather Service, reported Wednesday afternoon that at this point, Harford County should be getting mostly rain. On its current track, Hurricane Irene is expected to get closest to Harford County around 8 a.m. Sunday, but still out of the area.

It could shift, Klein reiterated, because there is "some uncertainty."

"This far out, three to four days out, there is still a little uncertainty, as well as room for error," he said.

What this means for Harford County, only time will tell, but plans are being put into action.

Emergency Manager Rick Ayers said Wednesday the Harford County Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, has had daily conference calls with the National Weather Service to make sure the county is properly preparing.

"Right now the current track of the hurricane is keeping it off the coast," Ayers said.

If the hurricane maintains its current path, Ayers said the county will likely see between 1 and 3 inches of rain, but added that forecast could change before the weekend.

"Certainly there's a lot of uncertainty with the storm," Ayers said, later adding, "If it just turns just a little bit to the west it will have a lot different effect of us."

Harford County Public Schools is preparing for the storm, as well, according to Manager of Communications Teri Kranefeld.

Thus far, she wrote in an email, school system staff has been in contact with the Emergency Operations Center to monitor the storm's path, intensity and timing.

"Communication will continue with all emergency management partners throughout the weekend," Kranefeld wrote. "All systems are in place to communicate any information to parents should our normal operating schedule change or to deliver any necessary emergency school system messages."

Cecil County Public Schools are preparing as well, according to Public Information Officer Kelly Keeton. Maintenance staff, she said, is taking extra precautions to make sure roof and parking drains are kept clean, in addition to other preparations.

"Just all of those things that can be done ahead of time," she said.

Even though Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace aren't expecting any serious damage or issues from the threatening hurricane, Martha Mallonee, director of communications for both hospitals, says they are anticipating some flooding, but mostly in Havre de Grace.

"As a matter of fact, we have a meeting later [Wednesday]," Mallonee said of the hospitals' preparations. She added that the hospitals are working with Harford County emergency services to assess damage possibilities at both locations, though they are "mostly focused on Harford Memorial."

The staff is being prepared for any possible hurricane-related issues, making sure emergency vehicles will have clear access to the hospitals throughout the week, especially on Sunday when the heaviest rain is expected to fall.

"The biggest concern is flooded streets because that has happened before," Mallonee said.

"There's only so much we can do [as far as] preparations," Aaron Ashford, public works superintendent for Perryville. "We're just tracking the storm to see what we need to do."

One thing the department of public works is doing to prepare for Irene is getting "supplies on hand in case of high water issues," including sand bags and boards for windows. An emergency response plan is also in place, which the town will follow based on the different degrees of damage and possible danger.

No serious problems are expected for Perryville, except for high water and flooding issues.

"We haven't had anything we couldn't handle," Ashford said.

If past hurricanes, such as 2003's Isabel and Floyd in 1999, are any indication of what to expect, there could be some fallen trees, as well.

At the moment, Ashford just anticipates "basic waterfront issues," including high wind and high water levels. Shore erosion will also be monitored, he said.

Local businesses will be opened or closed on the weekend based on the severity of the weather and the danger it poses to people.

Mayor Wayne Dougherty of Havre de Grace and Mayor Mike Bennett of Aberdeen said Wednesday their cities are gearing up to stay ahead of the weather.

"I had all my critical people in this morning," Dougherty said. "We are still hoping it's going to curve to the east, but if it doesn't, we are going to be well prepared."

Larry Parks, Havre de Grace's public works director, said Thursday he was not too concerned about the storm's impact on either the town or its waterfront structures, such as the Promenade.

"Water coming off the shore doesn't affect the Promenade much. If the storm is on the east side of the bay, that pushes water out … As long as it's on this track, the water's probably not going to come up and push on it," he said of the Promenade. "If there's anything loose on there, we will take it off."

In general, the city is "battening things down" on the marina, making sure all equipment is ready to go and keeping its fuel tanks full, Parks said.

"We are taking all the precautions we have," he said. "As long as it goes as predicted, I think we will be fine."

Bennett said he has told Aberdeen's police department employees they could be going on 12-hour shifts, and the public works department is getting ready for what it usually does in a storm.

"We are ready to act if we have to," he said. "We're ready to go."

Bel Air Mayor David Carey said the town will remain in contact with EOC and MEMA throughout the event.

"We're just bracing," Carey said.

He explained town crews will make sure storm drains are clear so roads quickly drain of water and the town asks citizens to rake drains in front of their property during the storm.

"We'll have our people on standby and we'll be ready," Carey said.

Baltimore Gas and Electric is also closely monitoring Hurricane Irene this week and preparing to respond to widespread power outages should they happen, according to a news release. The utility pre-mobilized hundreds of linemen and support staff to supplement their existing team.

The utility reminded customers to have flashlights, fresh batteries, a battery operated radio clock, a corded telephone, fully charged cell phones, nonperishable foods and blankets and stay away from downed power lines.

The Maryland State Fire Marshal's Office recommends people use flashlights instead of candles, use caution when refueling generators, make sure generators do not allow carbon monoxide to enter the home and when in earshot of thunder stay off corded phones and electronics.