With weather forecasters all but certain Hurricane Isabel will strike the central Atlantic coast late this week, state and local governments up and down the Eastern Seaboard are bracing for what is expected to be an extremely dangerous storm.

Computer models show that a region from New Jersey to North Carolina was at highest risk for a direct hit, with Washington nearly dead center of the storm's projected path, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported yesterday.

"If it hits landfall ... it has the potental for a large loss of life if we don't take it seriously and prepare for it," Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said on CNN.

Computer models predict that weather conditions over the East Coast should prevent Isabel from turning back out to sea and missing land, hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart said.

"Landfall along the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast somewhere between North Carolina and New Jersey between four or five days [Thursday or Friday] is appearing more and more likely," Stewart said. "Little or no significant weakening is expected to occur until after landfall occurs."

The Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates the state's response to emergencies and disasters, has been closely monitoring the storm's path and sharing information with other states along the Eastern Seaboard.

The agency has conference calls scheduled for today with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the DelMarVa Emergency Task Force, which includes counties on the Eastern shores of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

"We're talking. We're monitoring this thing extremely closely," said MEMA spokesman Quentin Banks.

Hurricane Floyd in September 1999 was the last major hurricane to affect Maryland, with lots of wind damage and flooding, Banks said.

He urged residents to listen for news updates about the storm and to prepare for its arrival. "People tend to not pay attention until it's right up on them," he said.

Michelle Mainelli, a meteorologist for the administration's National Hurricane Center, said the most recent forecasts showed tropical-storm-force winds lashing the coast of North Carolina early Thursday and hurricane-force winds of 71 miles per hour or more striking Maryland's Chesapeake Bay area later that day.

The hurricane could veer as far north as New York and New England or as far south as South Carolina. And weather experts acknowledged that storms could hold surprises.

But for the first time in the eight days in which federal officials have issued advisories about the storm, they said there was almost no chance it would miss the coast entirely.

"Everything points to a landfall," Mainelli said.

Forecasters said they expected Isabel to weaken slightly as it neared land, falling from a Category 4 to a Category 3 storm.

Joe Bastardi, a meteorologist and hurricane expert for Accuweather.com, said that would not be a reason to relax.

The hurricane sustained winds of 140 mph to 160 mph as it churned through the south Atlantic last week. Yesterday, it registered winds of 155 mph, just 1 mph shy of a Category 5 rating, as it roiled slowly westward, about 300 miles north of Puerto Rico. Isabel is expected to continue moving north-northwest today at about 13 mph.

The National Hurricane Center has not yet issued a hurricane warning, and no areas have been evacuated, but emergency-management teams up and down the coast watched the storm's progress warily yesterday and went over emergency evacuation procedures.

In Wilmington, N.C., John Byrnes had stocked up yesterday on 25 sheets of plywood and screws to barricade the windows at his house, his in-laws' house and their downtown law office.