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.
This could result in serious flooding along the rivers, the northern bay shore and Baltimore Harbor, forecasters said.
"The water will just pile up in the Chesapeake, and that could be a big problem for flooding and wave heights," said AccuWeather meteorologist Kerry Schwindenhammer.
At a Board of Public Works meeting yesterday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. urged people to stay off the roads, avoid reckless behavior and to check on elderly neighbors.
"When everyone uses their common sense, danger is minimized. ... Nonessential activities really need to be put on the shelf for a day or two," he said.
Marylanders need to "buckle seatbelts" and be ready to ride things out, Ehrlich said.
Heeding a week's worth of such warnings, residents from Frostburg to Ocean City hurried through final preparations.
As winds picked up along the Chester River in Chestertown, a crew readied the Sultana, a $1.3 million replica Colonial schooner used for educational trips for school groups. Workers lashed down sails on the 59-foot vessel, stowed gangplanks and secured the anchor.
Capt. Jamie Trost then set off to steer the Sultana three hours upriver, to a protected spot in shallow Langford Creek.
"She's never seen weather like they're predicting," said Trost, who has captained the 2-year- old ship for a year.
Nearby, owners waited in line to have their yachts lifted out of the water. While students from WashingtonCollege, which closed yesterday, were leaving town, Chestertown's inns were filling with owners wanting to watch over their boats.
Similar precautions were being taken on the other side of the bay. In Historic St. Mary's City, at an outdoor museum on the site of Maryland's old capital, archaeological digs were sandbagged, artifacts put in more secure spots and a replica 17th-century sailing ship docked in the St. Mary's River was being tended to.
"We're battening down the hatches," said Susan G. Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the city. "I never thought I'd get to say that in context."
In Allegany County, officials were expecting up to 10 inches of rain and flooding in parts of Western Maryland.
Dick Devore, director of the Allegany County Emergency Management Department, said that because the area usually experiences flash flooding rather than standing water, widespread sandbagging was not immediately planned. The county did place sandbags near a correctional facility in a flood zone yesterday, Devore said, and a few residents bought sandbags to protect their homes.
The areas of greatest concern were along George's Creek and the Potomac River in the North Branch area of the county. Shelters were prepared, but Devore said a decision to evacuate probably won't be made until officials determine how powerful the hurricane remains today.
Most school systems around Baltimore are waiting to decide whether to open tomorrow. But in Carroll County, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker decided to cancel classes tomorrow after studying weather reports.
Across Central Maryland, public works crews spent yesterday readying power saws, backhoes and loaders, testing generators, and clearing storm drains to help minimize backups that could cause flooding.
In Baltimore, officials said the areas most likely to flood are on the waterfront and near four waterways that course through the city: the Patapsco River, the Jones Falls, Gwynn Falls and Herring Run.
Water levels in the streams will be monitored, said Kurt L. Kocher, spokesman for the Department of Public Works. If flooding seems likely, the city's Emergency Operations Center will disseminate information through the news media.
A part of the city that Kocher thinks might be spared is a stretch of East 35th Street where basements flooded during torrential rains in June. That storm dumped 3 inches of rain in 20 minutes, he said. Flooding this time "should be relatively minimal" as long as the rain falls over a period of hours.
As for waterfront areas such as Fells Point and Canton, water can come from several directions, including up through storm drains and manholes, making sandbags less effective, Kocher said. Not that he wanted to alarm anyone.
"Don't panic," he said, "because those houses have been there hundreds of years and withstood storms that were worse than this one is going to be."
That is little comfort to the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point. Executive Director Ellen von Karajan bought 20 filled sandbags yesterday to go with 80 or so dropped off by the Maryland Historical Society at the group's Fells Point headquarters.
This week, the society bought a pump and had it shipped from the Midwest. It gathered two dozen trashcans to hold any water that needs to be pumped and rented a truck that will be parked on Thames Street to whisk valuables to high ground if necessary.
The society owns three buildings, including an 1859 horse barn that houses the new Fells Point Maritime Museum. The sandbags will be used to protect a climate-controlled room containing intricate models of sailing ships from Fells Point's 19th-century golden age.
"You can't just load them in the truck," von Karajan said. "I want to do everything we can to be prepared, just in case."
Talking up a storm
In a different sort of flood-prone area, the village of Detour in northern Carroll County (population 85), residents spent yesterday clearing out the bottom floors of their homes and sharing gossip about the coming storm.
At the Village Store, one of two businesses in town, owner Roxanne Burrier said she has hardly had to watch the news, because Isabel is the only thing people talk about when they come in for groceries or videos.
"How can you help but talk about it?" she said.
Detour lies at the confluence of two creeks, about a mile from the Monocacy River. Residents have experienced many floods over the years, the last big one in 1996, when melting snow sent the Monocacy over its banks. But they say that was nothing compared to Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, when 13 inches of rain fell in 48 hours and the water on the first floor of most buildings was above residents' heads.
"You gonna move anything or board up the basement?" Kathryn Lloyd asked Burrier yesterday afternoon.
"I don't think that would do any good," said Burrier, shrugging.
"Maybe it won't be as bad as they say," Lloyd said. "I guess we'll just go with the flow."
Burrier said she would have a trailer handy in case she needs to pack up the store and head over the hill on Friday.
"I wouldn't say I'm planning to have a normal day," she said. "But I'm planning to stay open, and we'll see what happens."
Elsewhere, others were in a similar frame of mind, figuring they had done what they could and that it was time to stand back and hope for the best.
Said Bret D. Grossnickle, mayor of tiny Union Bridge in western Carroll County: "There's nothing to do but wait."
Sun staff writers Stephanie Desmon, Johnathon E. Briggs, Childs Walker, Scott Calvert, Doug Donovan, Liz Bowie, Jonathan D. Rockoff, Laura Barnhardt, Sheridan Lyons, Athima Chansanchai, Lane Harvey Brown, Jennifer D. McMenamin, Jason Song and Laura Loh, and the Associated Press contributed to this article.