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.
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.
It's certain to get very wet. Three to 6 inches of rain are likely across Southern Maryland, Washington and Baltimore by Friday morning. Some areas could receive up to 12 inches.
With streams full and the soil saturated from summer rains, such amounts are likely to flood basements and cause flash flooding, mudslides and possibly major flooding along larger rivers.
Inland flooding claims 63 percent of the lives lost to hurricanes in the United States, said Eric Tolbert, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's director of emergency response.
The weather service warned of storm surges 3 to 5 feet above normal tides, with waves 4 to 7 feet high on top of that. In Baltimore, the most critical high tides are expected at 12:14 p.m. tomorrow, and 2:07 a.m. and 1:18 p.m. on Friday.
Winds could reach 40 to 60 mph across Southern Maryland by midday tomorrow, spreading inland during the day. Hurricane force winds above 74 mph are possible late tomorrow into Friday morning. Falling trees and broken branches are likely to cause widespread power outages, the weather service said.
Isabel is the first major hurricane to threaten the Mid-Atlantic since Floyd in September 1999. The storm took 56 lives, including one in Maryland, and caused $4.6 billion damage.
But meteorologists are reaching back to Hurricane Hazel, in 1954, for comparisons. Hazel came ashore in North Carolina and tracked northward across Maryland near Hagerstown. It killed six Marylanders and caused $190 million damage in today's dollars.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge warned the public to take no comfort in Isabel's weakening.
"This storm packs a wallop," he told a teleconference of state and local emergency managers.
The Navy began moving dozens of Atlantic Fleet ships and 13,000 sailors out of Norfolk and other eastern ports yesterday to ride out the storm at sea.
It is an expensive move designed to protect the fleet from even more costly damage if the ships broke loose or were battered against piers. The Navy and Air Force were flying airplanes from coastal bases to safer spots.
FEMA was moving emergency medical teams, rescue squads and disaster supplies to military installations from North Carolina to New Jersey.
Around the Chesapeake Bay, residents on low-lying property, in mobile homes, and those separated from safety by flood-prone bridges were urged to prepare to seek higher ground.
The weather service was forecasting 10- to 20-foot seas by tonight from Fenwick Island, Del., northward. From Fenwick south, winds could approach 70 mph, with seas rising to 35 feet tonight and even higher tomorrow.
Officials told boat owners to pull their craft from the water or secure them for hurricane conditions. Boats on land can be partly filled with water to weigh them down, and trailer tires should be chocked.
In Wicomico and Dorchester counties on the Eastern Shore, farmers worked day and night to save as much of their feed corn crop as possible before Isabel's winds knock it down.
"Everybody that has a combine is rolling," said Eddie Johnson, the Wicomico County extension educator.
It is a week or two early for the corn harvest, and farmers would normally let the corn dry in the field a bit longer to avoid paying to dry it at the elevators. But elevator operators and poultry processors who need the grain have offered farmers a price break to get the crop in before it's lost to the storm.
Even so, Johnson expects that farmers will get barely 10 percent of the crop in before Isabel arrives.
"If we get 90 mph winds, we're going to lose a lot of corn," he said.
Elsewhere, SalisburyUniversity canceled classes from 5 p.m. today through Friday so that students who want to be home during the storm have time to make the trip safely.
Isabel's expected track across Western Maryland is only the centerline of the most likely paths. It could veer east or west, but there seemed little chance the storm's center would pass east of the Chesapeake Bay.
If it passes west of the bay, the strongest winds would blow northward, producing storm surge, higher tides and flooding along low-lying sections of the shore.
'We'll be ready'
The possibility of flooding along the Jones Falls in Baltimore had many businesses scurrying. At the Mount Washington Mill complex, where signs warn of possible flooding 365 days a year, employees at the Smith & Hawken home and garden store will begin moving merchandise to higher shelves and placing sandbags by the doors today.
"We're not anxious or anything, but we're preparing for it," said an assistant manager, Mary Filippelli.
But at the nearby Mount Washington Wine Co., owner Seth Stevens was making no provisions to protect his expensive bottles of the grape. He half-joked about throwing a hurricane party and shrugged off the coming storm, saying, "That's what insurance is for."
In Baltimore County, fire stations stocked up on medical supplies. Highway crews cleared storm drains and made sure their chain saws were working.
Firefighters will patrol flood-prone areas such as the Patapsco River Valley and along the bay, said Fire Division Chief Mark F. Hubbard. The county held drills this summer to improve plans for responding to a Category 4 hurricane coming up the bay.
"We'll be ready if the worst happens," said County Executive James T. Smith Jr.
Maryland State Police planned to reassign troopers as needed tomorrow, depending on the storm's path, said Maj. Greg Shipley, an agency spokesman. All staff on leave or vacation were placed on standby, meaning they could be called back to work tomorrow through Sunday.
Barracks were being stocked with fuel and other supplies, and staff members tested generators and radio equipment.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey said the county probably would see flooding in low-lying areas, such as lower Main Street in Ellicott City, by the Patapsco River.
County lawyers were researching the law to determine whether Robey can order a mandatory evacuation of residents and businesses along the street.
"I'm prepared to close Main Street down," Robey said.
In Anne Arundel County, workers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport were securing equipment and inspecting terminals and landing areas to make sure they're draining properly.
County school officials said they planned to decide this afternoon whether to close schools because of the hurricane. Yesterday, they scoured school grounds to bring indoors anything that wasn't fixed to the ground, from soccer nets to construction equipment.
They took stock of plywood supplies (for broken windows) and lined up roofing contractors and tree removal companies. The county and the Red Cross are prepared to open at least three shelters - at Southern, Annapolis and Northeast high schools.
"We're preparing for the worst," said Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.
Officials in flood zones along the Susquehanna River were monitoring forecasts. Port Deposit Mayor Rob Flayhart and several Town Council members hand-delivered letters outlining emergency procedures for the 680 residents who live below Conowingo Dam.
On the Harford County side, popular Fisherman's Park, which runs from the base of the dam along the shoreline downstream, will close tomorrow at sundown until the storm passes.
'Wait and see'
In Baltimore, the Coast Guard placed the port yesterday on "Hurricane Condition Whiskey," a Level 4 alert.
If weather worsens and the alert level rises to Level 3 or 2 today, the port plans to begin securing cranes that are 21 stories tall. Dock workers will begin unstacking giant steel containers that could blow over, even though they weigh 5 tons empty, officials said.
At Pier 1, caretakers of the 1854 warship Constellation were busy doubling the fragile vessel's lines, removing awnings and battening the hatches.
They said they were confident that the restored ship could withstand the wind and tides, but were less certain about the visitors' building on the pier.
"There's not much we can do with that, we just have to wait and see," said Chris Rowsom, the ship's executive director. Delicate Constellation artifacts will be removed or carried to the second floor in case the first floor floods.
In Carroll County, crews have been clearing drains and culverts in low-lying areas and alerting crews that will be needed to clear downed trees.
Not all preparations were going well. In Simpson, N.C., a man testing his generator started a fire that burned down his house.
But help was being enlisted from higher authorities.
Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson prayed on his Christian Broadcasting Network that Hurricane Isabel would turn from the coast. He asked God to put a "wall of protection" around Virginia Beach and the East Coast.
"In the name of Jesus," he said, "we reach out our hand in faith and we command that storm to cease its forward motion to the north and to turn and to go out into the sea."
CBN is in Virginia Beach.
Sun staff writers Childs Walker, Laura Barnhardt, Andrew A. Green, Joe Nawrozki, Lane Harvey Brown, Amanda Angel, Meredith Cohn, Gus G. Sentementes, Andrea Walker and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
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