As the eye of Hurricane Sandy loomed over the waters some 500 miles southeast of Washington and the monster storm churned toward the Mid-Atlantic coast at 15 miles per hour, Marylanders braced Sunday for the arrival of a weather system some forecasters were calling potentially the most damaging to hit the United States in 75 years.
Heavy rains and gale-force winds were expected to hit the region Sunday afternoon and evening, and still heavier rains and hurricane-force gusts were expected to strike late Monday and Monday night.
Weathercasters said the storm, currently rated as a Category 1 hurricane, would likely cause everything from flash flooding and widespread power outages to treacherous conditions on the roads.
Ocean City officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of downtown — south of 17th St. — by 8 p.m. Sunday night. Residents in low-lying areas are under a voluntary evacuation order.
Mayor Rick Meehan declared a state of emergency, closing the beaches until further notice.
"This storm will be historic, destructive and life-threatening," said Bernie Rayno, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, adding that the collision of a cool, low-pressure system from the Midwest and a warm, high-pressure front moving up the coast would set up unusually favorable conditions for a devastating storm.
People in and around Baltimore were expected to get their first taste of the conditions late Sunday and would see the storm intensify by Monday morning and grow worse throughout the day Monday.
Sandy is expected to drop up to 8 inches of rain by Wednesday, when the worst of its effects should be over.
Forecasters anticipated the center of the storm would come ashore on the New Jersey coast, possibly near Atlantic City, late Monday.
In this storm, though, that fact doesn't matter as much as it normally would, according to Jason Elliott of the National Weather Service.
"It doesn't matter much where the storm hits," he said. "The system will affect an unusually large area. These gale-force winds are going to cover hundreds of miles."
Marylanders scrambled Sunday to prepare for Hurricane Sandy's high winds and heavy rains, stocking up on groceries, filling up gas tanks and clearing storms drains.
The storm's worst is expected Monday, likely wreaking havoc on the morning commute.
In Baltimore, city officials declared a state of emergency. Sandbagging stations in Fells Point drew throngs of people, who sometimes had to wait for a turn with the available shovels to dig from the four-foot mounds of sand.
Residents showed Maryland ID to receive bags for the sand: six for private homes, 18 for businesses or churches.
Eric Ausby filled 18 bags to take to his church, United Baptist, where he serves as a deacon.
"Last time it rained, we got flooded really bad," said Ausby, who shoveled sand at Caroline and Thames streets Saturday. "We have at least six doors that need to be covered. And our doors reach the ground level."
Even as the storm weakened, then restrengthened Saturday, forecasters urged East Coast residents to take the storm seriously: stock up on water and food, secure loose outdoor items such as bicycles and grills, make evacuation plans and have extra batteries, flashlights and blankets on hand. Regional power outages and widespread flooding are likely.
Mark Paquette, a meteorologist with AccuWeather, said the public should be focused on preparing for the storm.
"It is going to perform more like a nor'easter on steroids," Paquette said.
The storm could bring four to eight inches of rain along the Interstate 95 corridor and on the Eastern Shore in Maryland, according to forecasters. Isolated areas could see as much as 12 inches of rain. Western Maryland and parts of West Virginia may receive snow.
A storm surge between four and eight feet is possible from Ocean City to the Connecticut border with Rhode Island, according to the National Weather Service. Surges for the upper Chesapeake Bay are forecast for one to two feet and two to four feet for the Delmarva Peninsula, including the lower Chesapeake. The extent of flooding will depend on when during the tide cycle the surge strikes.
Flying debris and snapped tree limbs could be life-threatening, said Paquette, calling Sandy a once-in-a-lifetime storm.
A mix of factors created Sandy's deadly potential: a hurricane barreling up the coast, conditions in the North Atlantic that won't let the storm push out to sea, and a cold front sweeping in from the west that will boost Sandy's energy, Paquette said.
"It's tremendously rare for it to come together in the spot that it will," Paquette said. He compared it to 1991's "Perfect Storm," which brushed New England and Canada. Only this time, he said, it will "affect millions of people along the I-95 corridor."
Rush hour Monday morning will likely be a mess, with sustained winds between 40 and 50 mph and rain throughout the day, Paquette said. The wind power will increase until it peaks Monday afternoon.
In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is coordinating response efforts to include ensuring that enough first responders are available and emergency vehicles are fueled and road-ready.
The mayor activated the city's Emergency Operations Center at 7 a.m. Sunday.
"Baltimore always hopes for the best and plans for the worst," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "This storm has the potential for Isabel-like storm surge, and I want to make sure our residents and businesses have an opportunity to prepare for possible flooding."
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said officials there had lowered the water level at Centennial Lake in anticipation of heavy rains and flooding. Releasing lake water will prevent Centennial from overflowing and flooding nearby neighborhoods, he said.
Both Ulman and Rawlings-Blake urged residents to clear leaves and other items from storm drains.
"With the level of rain and winds and leaves coming down, there will be creeks and steams that quickly back up and overflow because of storm drain blockage," Ulman said.
Ulman said the county, like other places in the Baltimore region, will release plans for emergency shelters as the storm nears. When and where there will be shelters depends on flooding and power outages. Unlike typical hurricane and tropical storm preparations, officials are looking to keep residents warm, rather than cool in the event of power outages, he said.
"Clearly, the weather is changing," Ulman said. "People can talk about why it's happening. I am on the ground trying to keep people safe in these types of events. There is no question these events are getting more intense and occurring at times of the years that we're not accustomed to."
Hurricane season typically isn't active enough every year to produce "S" named storms, said AccuWeather's Paquette.
Hurricanes and powerful tropical storms are rare for the Mid-Atlantic states in October. A review of annual summaries from the National Hurricane Center showed infrequent storms in October. Omar, a major hurricane, terrorized the Caribbean in October 2008. That same year, Hurricane Paloma hit the Caribbean, including the Cayman Islands, in November. Paloma was the second-largest Atlantic hurricane to form in November, behind Hurricane Lenny in 1999.
Hurricanes Rita and Wilma, both from 2005, were two of the only late-named major storms to ravage the U.S. coastline in the last two decades. In 2005, the year that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, storms were named from A to W before meteorologist moved on to the Greek alphabet.
Regional preparations for Sandy were under way from the National Aquarium to funeral homes.
At the National Aquarium, spokeswoman Kate Hendrickson said the staff was making plans to ensure the animals are cared for throughout the duration of the storm, including refueling generators, making sure tanks are filled with oxygen, and putting a dry ice vendor on-call. The National Aquarium has a floodgate system installed throughout the building in case of rising water, she said.
"We have animals to care for no matter the weather, and we are right on the water," Hendrickson said. "As such, we have to be prepared for a big storm. We started preparing for the storm this week and plan to continue with necessary preparations all weekend."
The aquarium's Hallowmarine event is schedule to continue Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Meanwhile Patrick Fleming, a funeral director with the Leonard J. Ruck Funeral Home in Northeast Baltimore, said his team was monitoring the storm closely.
"We can't say what we're going to do right now, but at the moment, everything is a go for Monday," Fleming said. "But if we get the predicted 80 mile per hour winds, safety becomes the most important factor for our families and we will postpone."
BGE officials continued to work to prepare for likely power outages. The utility set up a site for crews coming in from as far as New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas to assist local crews with Hurricane Sandy restoration work.
Local BGE crews assembled at one of four staging sites for out-of-town assistance crews in Lot H of M&T Bank Stadium. Chris Walls, BGE site manager, said that officials plan to dispatch about 400 workers from the M&T Stadium site. Other staging sites were set up at BWI Marshall Airport, Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen and Timonium Fairgrounds.
Local crews had moved in generators, command trailers and light towers and constructed the skeleton for an oversized tent for the workers.
Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance, Fred Rasmussen and Candy Thomson contributed to this report.
The four-day forecast
Sunday: Rain and winds 30-40 mph during the day with temperatures reaching a high of 61 degrees. Winds to pick up into the evening with speeds as high as 50 mph. An evening low of 50 is expected.
Monday: Heavy rains and strong, damaging winds 40-70 mph with a high of 56 degrees. Hurricane Sandy is expected to make landfall between the Delmarva Peninsula and northern New Jersey.
Tuesday: Rain and winds 20-30 mph from a downgraded Tropical Storm Sandy; a high of 51 degrees
Wednesday: Cloudy with a shower and a high of 53 degrees.
Useful phone numbers
Baltimore City information on preparedness: 311 or http://emergency.baltimorecity.gov/Preparedness.aspx
Baltimore Department of Public Works: 311
BGE outages and downed wires: 877.778.2222
BGE Special Needs Hotline: 877-213-2610
American Red Cross Chesapeake Region: 410-624-2000
Verizon (for downed telephone poles or power lines): 800-837-4966Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun