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Baltimore County watching to see which way wind blows on Hurricane Joaquin

Hurricane Joaquin gained strength as it bore down on the central Bahamas early Thursday, and forecasters said it was likely to grow into a major storm while following a path that would near the U.S. East Coast by the weekend.

Baltimore County government and public school officials said Thursday they are monitoring Hurricane Joaquin but holding off on taking major emergency preparedness steps until they see which way the storm is headed.

"It clearly looks like we're fine today," said Mychael Dickerson, chief spokesman for the county school system. He said no decisions have been made about closing schools and that the administrative staff is scheduled to meet with Superintendent S. Dallas Dance on Saturday, although the meeting might be moved up if Gov. Larry Hogan declares a state of emergency.

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According to the latest forecast from the National Weather Service, Hurricane Joaquin was gathering strength several hundred miles east of the Bahamas on Thursday morning and was expected to move toward the mid-Atlantic region during the next five days.

"Right now, it's kind of meandering," said Matt Elliott, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service's regional office in Sterling, Va. It's not clear yet whether the hurricane will hit the Chesapeake Bay, but even if it goes out to sea, the Baltimore area is expected to get 2-to-4 inches of rain Friday into Saturday, Elliott said. He said any significant rain and wind from the storm would come Sunday into Monday.

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The National Weather Service website alerts people, "Be aware that flooding from heavy rain, damaging winds and tidal flooding will be possible Sunday into Monday."

For now, the county government is expecting only inland flooding and has not set up an emergency preparedness page for the hurricane on the county's website, www.baltimorecountymd.gov, said spokeswoman Ellen Kobler. However, the county is releasing updated information and plans on Twitter, andhas general emergency preparedness advice on the website, Kobler said.

"We are ready," she said, noting that the county has conducted "drills and exercises on this exact storm scenario."

Daily briefings are being done with key county staff and emergency responders to monitor updates and prepare equipment and review plans, Kobler said. She said some flooding of roads, rivers and streams is expected and that high winds could cause power outages. The county is advising residents to go to its website and search "emergency preparedness" for safety tips, or go to @BACOEMERGENCY on Twitter and Facebook.

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Residents should be prepared for three days without power, including keeping smartphones charged, having a battery-operated flashlights and one gallon of drinking water per person per day, and having a battery-operated radio, the county advises. It also advises motorists and pedestrians to watch for downed trees and power lines and not to drive or walk through standing or moving water across the road, because it could sweep people off their feet or carry their cars away.

Residents should also try to keep storm drains and inlets open and clear of debris, Kobler said. The county has been cleaning storm drains all summer, she said.

Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. is "making staffing preparations in order to respond to any potential service interruptions caused by the heavy rain and damaging winds of a major coastal storm. In addition to the company's 3,200 employees, BGE is activating additional support contractors — tree and overhead line crews — "and has begun the process of requesting crews from other utilities," the company said in a press release Thursday.

Customers should report service interruptions or downed wires to BGE at 877-778-2222, or at www.bge.com. or on social media.

The county police and fire departments said in an online blog Thursday that the hurricane, now a Category 3 storm with winds of up to 126 miles per hour, is being moniotred closely by county emergency management personnel, who are -reviewing emergency plans, staffing and equipment. Joaquin is the first of two, back-to-back weather systems that are expected to affect the Baltimore region, states the blog at www.baltimorecountymd.gov/policefirenews.

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