www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-hurricane-irene-arrives-20110827,0,265731.story

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Irene whips Maryland

Hurricane cuts power to hundreds of thousands, but state avoids widespread damage, flooding

By Peter Hermann, Frank D. Roylance, Erik Maza and Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

9:49 AM EDT, August 28, 2011

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Marylanders began cleaning up from Hurricane Irene this morning but mostly the state emerged from the storm without significant damage or widespread flooding, as feared.

Emergency officials cautioned that high winds are expected throughout the day as the storm hit New York City. They said Irene could still lead to more downed trees and power lines. And flooding in many areas, from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore, still remains possible with continued storm surges.

One death was reported in a house collapse in Queen Anne's County, and state officials are on their way this morning to southern Maryland to assess the St. Mary's Lake Dam, where they are worried it could fail.

Eddie Hopkins, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said this morning that the water levels at the dam had reached 68 feet; the dam can fail when water reaches 71 feet. No residents have been forced to leave their homes, and Hopkins said officials at this time do not expect a breech.

"We got the message out ahead of time," Hopkins said of the minimal damage. "We really weren't crying wolf. This storm had the potential of being harmful, and people took it seriously."

Between 650,000 and 700,000 customers across Maryland were without power this morning, including much of Ocean City. In the metro area, Baltimore Gas and Electric was reporting 130,000 customers without power in Baltimore County and 103,000 in Anne Arundel County. Baltimore City had about 68,000 without power.

In Ocean City, officials said they were heading out this morning to assess any damage but expected to keep access to the city closed "until a full damage assessment can be made and any unsafe conditions secured." Incoming traffic remains limited to emergency personnel.

No injuries were reported at the resort, which had been evacuated. The wastewater plant, which had been taken off line, was being restarted this morning. Officials said the eye of the hurricane passed within 50 miles of the beaches and sustained winds reached 60 mph, with a top gust reported at 80 mph.

InAnnapolis, the City Dock, which was so devasated in 2003 with Tropical Storm Isabel, sustained no flooding. Ego Alley, where boats are parked, was empty, and traffic moved easily about the city.

Across the state, Hopkins said highway crews are busy clearing downed trees and power line and were reopening roads, such as the Harry Nice Bridge into Virginia in southern Maryland. The Key Bridge is open. Hopkins said the Bay Bridge has reopened.

"We're looking at localized flooding but nothing significant that we're aware of," Hopkins said.

The Maryland State Highway Administration said that as of this morning, about 180 roads throughout the state were closed, most because of downed trees and flooding. Most were on the Eastern Shore, but dozens were also shut in central Maryland.

Officials opened the Thomas Johnson Bridge over the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, along with the Key Bridge and the Severn River Bridge — U.S. 50 and Route 450 inAnnapolis. SHA spokeswoman Laura Rakowski said that crews are reporting a continuing cycle — as soon as some roads are reopened, others are closed.

Northbound lanes of Interstate 95 have been reopened in Cecil County after an overturned tractor trailer kept crews busy overnight, Rakowski said. U.S 1 in Baltimore County, near Kingsville and toward Perry Hall, was closed this morning because debris in the road. Also close for debris are U.S. 40 in Harford County, near Joppa Road, and Route 32 in western Howard County.

The only highway closed this morning was eastbound I-70 at Marriottsville Road, also for debris, Rakowski said.

“Fortunately, most motorists heeded the warning not to drive last night,” the highway spokeswoman said. “We are starting to see that change this morning as more folks are out. Caution is still the word. It’s best to delay travel if you can. It’s certainly not ideal conditions for driving.”

In Baltimore, MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake warned residents that wind from departing Irene will "continue to create dangers for those venturing outside." She also said that 66,000 city customers lost power in the storm.

"We know citizens are eager to get out and assess the impact of Hurricane Irene, but  we strongly encourage citizens to be extremely cautious as they begin to venture outside," the mayor said in a 6 a.m. statement.

"There are downed wires, downed trees,  hanging limbs and other dangers throughout the city," she said, "and lingering winds will continue to pose a threat to safety all day long."

Rawlings-Blake lifted parking restrictions inFells Point this morning. Vehicles towed by the city can be picked up by their owners at the city's Edison lot at the Fallsway and High street, near downtown.

Public transportation in Baltimore is lumbering back to life. Local bus service was back in operation at 5 a.m. and the Metro subway is also operational. Trains are running from Johns Hopkins to Rogers Avenue. From there, busses will take passengers between Rogers Avenue and Owings Mills. Crews are working to removed downed trees on the tracks.

Light rail service should be restored at 11 a.m., said Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Terry Owens. He said crews are working to remove trees from the tracks near Cold Spring Lane and downed power lines near Falls Road.

Rawlings-Blake asked residents to continue calling 311 for any problems, and that city crews will be heading out to assess damage. Police officers were out in force this morning responding to calls for downed trees and wires. Dozens of calls were coming into police dispatchers for those problems.

"It's going to be a long day of cleanup," a dispatcher told a police officer shortly after 6 a.m.

But it appears that Baltimore City made it through the storm without any significant damage, including flooding. One firefighter could be heard at 6:15 this morning helping an elderly woman with a flooded basement and was told by a dispatcher that the emergency shelters were about to close.

 “We only had one person in a shelter and we had three of them open,” the fire dispatcher said.

On the Eastern Shore, emergency crews in Cambridge are busy evacuating 30 patients from Dorchester General Hospital where a spokeswoman said the building sustained water damage. Ambulance crews are taking the patients to Easton Memorial Hospital, about 20 minutes away.

Linda Mastro, a spokeswoman for Shore Health Systems, which runs the hospital, said this morning that the heavy rain and win on the Eastern Shore damaged the roof over the main laboratory and there is water damage in several patients’ rooms, as well as in the operating room and chemotherapy room.

The hospital has a capacity for 45 patients.

Emergency workers and state officials said a chief concern is a possible storm surge that could overwhelm the Lower Eastern Shore. Some recalled the 7-foot storm surge that reached Baltimore during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, but forecasters were predicting just one to three feet of surge in the upper Chesapeake Bay.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama declared a federal emergency in Maryland, enabling the state to tap federal assets to supplement its response efforts. The declaration had been requested Thursday by Gov. Martin O'Malley, said Edward Hopkins a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

The president declared similar emergencies Sunday for Delaware and Washington, D.C.  On Saturday, Virginia, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts were added to the list. North Carolina received the designation on Thursday.

Damage was reported along the East Coast starting Saturday evening. The state Highway Administration said more than 100 state roads were closed due to trees or debris, and about 50 had traffic signals out as of 12:50 a.m. Many roads were closed due to high water. Power outages were widespread, and thousands of evacuees from Ocean City and other parts of Maryland crowded shelters.

Just before 11 p.m. Saturday, St. Mary's County issued a 911 Code Red emergency notification to residents downstream from St. Mary's Lake Dam of a potential dam failure. According to the county website, failure of the dam could cause significant flooding.

And inQueen Anne's County, a tree fell on a house and killed one person, according to officials.

Most flights in and out of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport were canceled by around noon Saturday, said BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge closed to traffic around 7:30 p.m., after winds exceeded 55 mph according to the Maryland Transportation Authority. The Port of Baltimore closed after the Chesapeake Bay closed to cargo ship traffic at 8 p.m.

Officials closed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia because of the storm, as well as the Route 450 bridge over the Severn River. Wind warnings were posted for the Key Bridge on Interstate 695 and the Thomas Johnson Bridge that connects Calvert and St. Mary's counties.

In Baltimore County, where low-lying coastal areas were hit hard by the storm surge from Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, officials reported "good news" on the local government website early Saturday.

"Current forecasts show that Baltimore County should not experience the kind coastal flooding caused by tidal surge that we saw during Hurricane Isabel," the site says. "Most of the damage will be the result of wind and rain."

Smith Island in the bay was evacuated early Saturday, and Somerset County officials recommended that residents evacuate any flood-prone areas, emergency planner Victoria Lloyd said. Conditions in the county deteriorated overnight, with wind gusts exceeding 50 mph.

The number of residents calling for help, especially the elderly and others with special needs, increased throughout the day as fears rose.

"Some people thought they could stay and wait out the storm," Lloyd said late Saturday afternoon. "They're getting nervous now and asking for transportation."

In Calvert County, an evacuation notice was issued for residents living within 100 feet of the fragile cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay. "The storm brings the potential for high winds, heavy rain and large battering waves in the bay that may pose a danger for unstable cliff areas," according to a statement on the county's website.

BGE had 3,800 employees, contractors and repair crews from as far away as Kentucky ready to assist with repairs after Irene's departure. The utility said it was planning for 350,000 to 500,000 outages in its service area. BGE and Pepco had three times as many crews as they did during the major snowstorms known as "Snowmageddon" that hit Maryland in February 2010.

O'Malley, at the state Emergency Operations Center inReisterstown, said power outages and flooding were a "huge concern of ours both for emergency operations and protection of our people at shelters."

"Already, the rain bands are starting to dump a lot of water on the rivers and streams," he said Saturday evening.

But forecasters expect the first rays of sunshine by Sunday afternoon, starting in Western Maryland. And early next week will bring sunny skies, light winds and temperatures in the low 80s.

Transportation networks will start putting their operations back together Sunday. Dean, the BWI spokesman, said the preliminary plan is for most airlines to resume operations Sunday afternoon.

"Obviously that's dependent on conditions locally as well as throughout their networks," he said.

Amtrak suspended service north of Jacksonville, Fla., and east of Toledo, Ohio and Indianapolis, Indiana.

Irene came ashore near Cape Lookout, N.C., on Saturday morning, a Category 1 hurricane, with top sustained winds of 85 mph. The storm was weakening as it passed over land. Top sustained winds were down to 80 mph by 5 p.m. Saturday. But rain totals piled up on Delmarva, with flood warnings posted for the southernmost Maryland counties. Elsewhere, residents and public officials braced for a night of rising winds, rising tides and intense rain.

Irene remained a large, dangerous storm overnight, capable of unloading tremendous rain and wind on the region as it passed along the coast.

National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Witt said wind and rain wrapping around the southwestern side of the storm Sunday morning would continue to complicate life in Central Maryland.

"Winds will still be out of the northwest," he said. "You'll be looking at sustained winds of 35 to 45 mph. … For gusts, you're probably looking at between 50 and 60, especially up into Harford County. The farther east you go, the tendency is for winds to be a little stronger."

He said to expect light to moderate rain in the Hagerstown and Frederick vicinity, with about one-third to three-quarters of an inch Sunday morning. In Harford and Baltimore, the rain is expected to be heavy about 4 a.m., tapering off as early as 6 a.m. An end to the rain and the first sunshine may not appear until late afternoon, Witt said.

By Monday, things should look much better.

"We'll finally get a chance to dry out," Witt said.

<i>Sun reporters Susan Reimer and Steve Kilar contributed to this article.</i>

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

erik.maza@baltsun.com