Preparing for Isabel

In downtown Annapolis, Terran Hicks Sr. boards up glass at the White House/Black Market clothing store. Storm damage often closes businesses, cutting off worker pay and tax revenue. (Sun photo by Jerry Jackson / September 16, 2003)

Beneath deceptively clear, blue skies, Marylanders pushed their preparations for Hurricane Isabel yesterday, securing homes, businesses and boats, and rushing their harvests to beat the heavy rains and gales expected tomorrow.

Isabel, which had packed 150 mph winds over the weekend, diminished yesterday to a Category 2 storm, with top winds of 110 mph at 11 p.m.

Though the weakening had stopped, forecasters said Isabel is unlikely to regain its former strength before it strikes North Carolina tomorrow. Isabel's northwesterly track seemed likely to spare Central Maryland its worst winds.

"It's a serious storm, but not a crippling storm," said Todd Miner, a meteorologist with Penn State Weather Communications, in State College, Pa.

For Maryland, the real threat is likely to be the rain.

"I can guarantee you there will be serious flooding from this system," Miner said. "This will be a big newsmaker in terms of flooding, most likely in the mountains."

The intensity of Isabel's wind and rain in the Baltimore-Washington area will depend on how far west of the Chesapeake Bay the storm passes. The closer the storm's center, the wetter and windier it will be.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declared a state of emergency last night, activating the Maryland National Guard so troops will be ready when Isabel strikes.

"It's simply a matter of readiness," he said. "You put your assets in place."

The Guard's Maj. Gen. Bruce F. Tuxill said it will be able to supply Humvees, front loaders and multipurpose vehicles able to ford streams where needed, and that troops will be called on to help in medical emergencies as during February's record snowstorm.

Marylanders were not the only ones watching Isabel's approach. More than 50 million people live in the broad path of the storm, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many along the storm's projected path were trying to get out of the way of hurricane winds that extended 160 miles from Isabel's center. More than 100,000 people were making their way off North Carolina's Outer Banks yesterday after evacuation orders were issued for Dare and Currituck counties.

Large swells and dangerous surf were already pounding beaches from the Bahamas to the East Coast. Tropical storm conditions extended 275 miles from the storm's center.

Storm watch

As of late yesterday, Isabel was expected to come ashore tomorrow afternoon near Cape Hatteras, N.C., moving through Central Virginia and crossing Western Maryland on Friday.

Tropical storm winds of 40 to 60 mph were expected in the lower Chesapeake Bay> by midday tomorrow, spreading inland through the evening. Hurricane force winds, above 73 mph, are possible in the lower bay by tomorrow night.

As part of an escalating warning system, the National Weather Service posted tropical storm watches yesterday for Baltimore and the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay, north of North Beach in Calvert County, and along the Atlantic Coast from Chincoteague, Va., to Little Egg Inlet, N.J. A watch means that tropical storm conditions are possible within 36 hours.

Hurricane watches were issued for the Chesapeake Bay south of North Beach, and for the Potomac River basin, including the District of Columbia, and Charles, Calvert, St. Mary's, Wicomico, Dorchester and Somerset counties. Hurricane watches also were posted for parts of North Carolina and Virginia.

A watch means that hurricane force winds, storm surge or flooding are possible within 36 hours. Forecasters were expecting to upgrade the watches to warnings overnight, meaning that tropical storm or hurricane conditions are imminent.