They call it the "policy room," and at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 26, it was filled with about 25 of Howard County's top officials and emergency management personnel, all gathered to discuss the county's preparations for Hurricane Irene.
Another dozen or so top officials from other county departments, and from such institutions as Howard County General Hospital, Howard Community College and the Columbia Association, were dialed in on a conference line.
Through a wall of windows was the "situation room," complete with four rows of computers and five large screens feeding live news coverage and meteorological information of the storm.
One day before Irene was expected to reach the county, bringing heavy winds and intense rainfall, the atmosphere within the county's emergency operations center in Ellicott City – which was relocated and enhanced about eight months ago – was friendly and light.
"Who would have thought we would have an earthquake in the same week as we're dealing with a hurricane?" asked County Executive Ken Ulman shortly after taking his seat at the head of the table.
But when it came to outlining the county's preparations for the storm, such as the number of shelters available to open, or the resources in place to deal with flooding in low-lying areas, or the number of police officers on call, it was all business.
"Let's tackle another disaster as best we can for the residents of Howard County," Ulman said to those in the room, known as his Emergency Management Advisory Group.
Some of the administrators in the room looked tired. The emergency personnel in the room – the center's staffers who "live for this stuff," as Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director William Goddard put it – seemed excited.
But everyone was engaged, and seemed prepared, as Ulman went around the room one-by-one, asking for status reports from public works, corrections, inspections, human services, police, fire, parks and recreation, health, and so on.
To start, Ulman asked for an "overall weather update," and Tom McNeal, one of the emergency center's three managers – and one of the people who seemed excited – stepped up to the table.
As it turns out, McNeal was one of three state employees who got to attend the National Hurricane Center's yearly hurricane training seminar in Miami in February. McNeal is not a meteorologist, but because of his training, he knows how to interpret meteorological information regarding hurricanes, he said.
Howard County, McNeal said, can expect sustained winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour, and gusts of up to 65 miles per hour. The county is currently in a "weird kind of cusp" in terms of the amount of rain it might get – it could get one to four inches, or it could get 10 inches. With already saturated soil in the area, either result may cause flooding, he said.
Ulman, with his sleeves rolled up and an iPad in front of him, jumped in and asked whether there is a "key tipping point" in the next 24 hours when information will become more reliable, less speculative.
McNeal said the closer the storm gets, the better the information will be. But storms are largely unpredictable.
That upside-down, tear-shaped trajectory of the storm you see on TV, for example? It's just a prediction, McNeal warned.
"Everything to the left of that cone is still in play for the eye of the hurricane," he said.
Regardless of early predictions, McNeal said it was wise to expect a heavy pounding.
"You see how big this sucker is – it's big," he said.
Jim Irvin, director of the county's Department of Public Works, said his department is gearing up for tree removal and flooded storm drains. He also said a water main break on Route 40 earlier Friday had closed a main water line, which caught Ulman's attention.
"It should not be a problem, unless we lose another line," Irvin said.