Richard Colbert and Wendy Haugan

In Annapolis, Richard Colbert of Mills Wine and Spirits and Wendy Haugan of Juice It Up take city-supplied sandbags to protect businesses against flooding near City Dock. (Sun photo by Kim Hairston / September 17, 2003)

With a week's worth of preparations in place, Marylanders are bracing for the long-awaited arrival today of the hurricane that was bearing down on the North Carolina coast last night with winds exceeding 100 mph.

The heavy rains and gusts of Isabel are expected to hit Maryland in midafternoon, though showers may start earlier, forecasters said. The worst of the storm probably will strike the state in the late afternoon, early evening and overnight.

Maryland officials weren't taking chances. Baltimore schools, as well as those in Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties, are closed today. Schools in Carroll County will close three hours early.

The nation's capital also played it safe. The federal government was shut down for today, as congressional leaders canceled votes so lawmakers could get out of town. And Maryland's governor announced liberal leave for nonessential state employees yesterday.

The hurricane was expected to make landfall in North Carolina this morning, with large swells and heavy rains predicted along the Carolina coast last night.

Though the storm in recent days had lost some of the wallop it packed while over the Atlantic Ocean last weekend, it remained a Category 2 hurricane yesterday, with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph at 11 p.m.

Forecasters warned that some areas could receive 6 to 10 inches of rain, with major flooding along larger rivers.

"It's been maintaining its headway," said Jeff Warner, a meteorologist with the Penn State Weather Communications Group in State College, Pa. "It had been weakening, but over the last 24 hours, it's stabilized and steadied itself."

The National Weather Service posted a tropical storm warning for Baltimore, Central Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay north of Smith Island. This means that tropical storm winds of up to 60 mph are imminent.

However, the weather service downgraded warnings for parts of Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore that had been under a hurricane watch, which predicts winds above 73 mph. Those areas were placed under a tropical storm warning.

The Chesapeake Bay below Smith Island and large areas of North Carolina and Virginia remained under hurricane warning last night.

After a small westward shift this week, Isabel maintained a northwesterly path yesterday, and forecasters expected the storm's center to pass over Central Virginia, Western Maryland and into Western Pennsylvania.

The path is somewhat unusual for hurricanes, which often turn northeast as they hit land, and led meteorologists to compare Isabel to Hazel, a 1954 storm that crossed Maryland near Hagerstown, killing six Marylanders and causing $190 million damage in today's dollars.

Wherever its eye passes, the storm's effects are likely to spread over a broad swath of the mid-Atlantic, from West Virginia to the Jersey Shore, with tropical storm force winds extending up to 315 miles from its center.

The storm was headed toward shore at about 11 mph yesterday, but is expected to pick up speed as it hits land, eventually moving at 30 to 40 mph as it races toward Canada.

"It's expected to accelerate as it moves inland and as it moves up to Virginia," said Steve Zubrick of the National Weather Service center in Sterling, Va.

High water expected

The National Weather Service was warning yesterday of storm surge flooding 7 to 10 feet above normal tide levels along the North Carolina coast, and 4 to 7 feet above normal in the southern Chesapeake Bay and tidal portions of its tributaries.

Forecasters at AccuWeather warned that the storm's track could pose a particular problem for the bay, because the rivers feeding the Chesapeake, high from a wet summer, are emptying into the bay just as Isabel will be pushing water into the narrow end of the bay's funnel.