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Howard County braces for storm as Irene moves in

The bottled water and battery aisles are getting barren. The hardware stores have been raided.

Area residents are rushing to local stores in anticipation of Hurricane Irene, and officials in Howard County continue to prepare for the huge storm.

Irene is continuing its northward churn, bringing the threat of high weekend winds and heavy rains for Central Maryland. The hurricane was positioned Friday morning east of Georgia with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. Forecasters believe the storm will move northeast, passing over Maryland's Eastern Shore late Saturday and Sunday. Ocean City officials ordered an evacuation Thursday.

A tropical storm warning has been issued for Howard County, and some weekend events already were canceled. Among the canceled events was the annual 24 Hours of Booty, a 24-hour cycling event that raises money to fight cancer, which was scheduled to begin Saturday at 2 p.m. in Columbia's Gateway Business Park.

However, the Second Chance Saloon, in the village of Oakland Mills, actually expanded its musical offerings scheduled for Saturday night, taking in a string of bands that was chased out its Eastern Shore venue by the threat Irene.

Area hardware store managers, meanwhile, reported being out of numerous staples Friday morning.

"We've had people rolling in here like crazy wanting batteries, flashlights, little propane tanks, generators, chain saws and chain saw blades," said Sharon DeBow, assistant manager at Kendall Hardware in Clarksville. "We've had everything going out the door."

The shop is out of certain size batteries, as well as flashlights and generators, and nearly out of chain saws, she said. The shop will not be restocked until Tuesday.

"Whatever we got in yesterday went right out the door yesterday," DeBow said. "We can't hang on to anything."

There aren't any generators, flashlights or D batteries left at the Home Depot in Columbia either, according to Matthew Cooper, an assistant store manager. The store is also almost out of radios, he said.

"People are picking up water and toilet paper," Cooper said. "We got two pallets of water last night and most of it is already gone."

There hasn't been as much of a run there on plywood for boarding of windows, however, he said. Cooper did recall one contractor buying plywood to take to the coast because stores there are out of stock.

"I don't believe a lot of local people have much worry for boarding up their houses," Cooper said.

Grocery stores, with heavier than usual crowds, are also running out of certain supplies.

"We're extremely busy; we're not this busy on a normal day," said Troy Bloom, a customer service representative at the Giant on Cradlerock Way in Owen Brown. "A lot of people are just buying water."

Early Friday afternoon, rows of empty shelves surrounded a few remaining cases of bottled water. The battery display was missing about half of its usual inventory, although the bread aisle was well-stocked.

Dave Lauritzen, a Baltimore resident who works in Columbia, said he was buying water and batteries "just to be prepared.

"My biggest deal where I live (inCanton) is power outages," he said.

Tom, a Columbia resident who declined to give his last name, said he just moved to Howard County from Michigan and he didn't know how quickly things would disappear at the grocery store, so he did his normal shopping earlier in the week. Having forgotten bottled water, his wife sent him back to the store on Friday.

"To see people this crazy other than when it's snowing is really kind of weird," Tom said.

Local agencies are also preparing for whatever rain and winds the storm might bring.

Columbia Association staff are checking their facilities, making sure gutters and drains are clear, according to spokeswoman Kelly Cooper. Crews are preparing for recovery efforts, fueling vehicles and equipment such as chain saws and wood chippers, she said.

The dams at Wilde Lake and Lake Elkhorn are being inspected ahead of time. "We are prepared to monitor them in case we get a lot of rain," Cooper said.

The Howard County Department of Public Works has started clearing debris and securing its project sites. Officials also are looking into how the rain could affect dams and storm water management in the county, according to county spokeswoman Samantha O'Neil.

All county agencies are preparing response plans, and the government is using its website, as well as Facebook and Twitter, to update residents and let them know what precautions they should take, O'Neil said.

Howard County Police Chief William McMahon said his department might bring on additional personnel to handle road closures and non-working traffic lights — "things we can reasonably expect to happen."

Some county highways have numerous intersections and traffic lights. "We can't predict what will go out, but if they do, that's not the time to be scrambling to find folks," McMahon said. He reminded drivers to treat traffic lights that are out as four-way stops.

The department also handles the county's 911 call center and could increase staffing there, too, he said.

"We're making sure we have everything we need in place, making sure we have cones and barricades and that our vehicles are gassed up," McMahon said.

The county Department of Fire and Rescue Services likely will put more workers and units in place, department spokeswoman Jackie Cutler said early Thursday.

"We have swift water boat rescuers. We have several parts of the county that are in harder to navigate areas. We want to make sure we are prepared," she said.

Residents should be proactive with their own planning, Cutler said, and shouldn't wait until the storm arrives and its repercussions unfold.

"People need to be really aware of how rapidly these conditions can evolve," she said. "Be prepared. Have emergency plans in place in case something does happen."

Said McMahon: "One of the things we ask our community to do is to be careful. There's no need to go out in the height of the storm and travel. Let us be able to do our jobs. If they go out there to see what's going on, they're potentially creating a problem that can draw us away from more immediate concerns."

County officials also urged residents to prepare for the expected weekend weather by moving lawn furniture indoors, cleaning downspouts and keeping a battery-powered radio available. These and other preparation tips are available at

Staff writer Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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