Irene weaker but still dangerous

Slightly weaker, but still a big, wet and dangerous storm, Hurricane Irene hit the North Carolina beaches early Saturday en route to a battened-down Delmarva Peninsula.

The state of Maryland, Anne Arundel County, and the cities of Baltimore, Annapolis and Ocean City declared states of emergency. A mandatory evacuation was under way in Ocean City, and local authorities urged residents in other flood-prone neighborhoods to clear out before the storm strikes.

"This storm has made landfall," Gov. Martin O'Malley said at midafternoon Friday. "Evacuations are going well from Ocean City. There are some holiday-style backups reported."

He urged residents not to delay leaving low-lying areas of Wicomico and Queen Anne's counties.

"Anybody who thinks that this is a normal hurricane and that they can just stick it out is being both selfish, stupid and also diverting essential public safety assets away from the task at hand, which is safeguarding lives and getting people out of the way," O'Malley said. "It is the height of selfishness for people not to evacuate."

O'Malley said the Bay Bridge would likely remain open until the early evening hours Saturday. "But don't wait until 3 p.m. to load your family in the station wagon and head to the bridge."

Hurricane-force winds were expected at Ocean City by late Saturday evening, continuing for several hours. Sustained winds of 55 to 65 mph, with gusts to 85 mph, were forecast overnight into Sunday.

The Eastern Shore could see 6 inches to 12 inches of rain. A storm surge, combined with high tide and a new moon, could produce a "worst-case" inundation of 4 feet to 8 feet, the National Weather Service said. Particularly vulnerable are Ocean City, Wachapreague, Va., and locations facing the Chesapeake Bay.

In Baltimore and the Western Shore, a tropical storm warning was in effect. Forecasters said sustained tropical storm winds should begin Saturday evening. Maximum winds could reach 35 mph to 45 mph, with gusts to 65 mph.

While the streets may be dry this morning, forecasters warn that we'll see rainfall totals of 2 to 5 inches during the storm, with some higher totals - 6 to 8 inches - along the Western Shore of the Chesapeake.

A flash-flood watch was in place on the Western Shore from Baltimore County to Southern Maryland. Baltimore and other Western Shore communities might see a modest storm surge of just 1 to 3 feet overnight into Sunday.

The Maryland Transit Administration will temporarily suspend services Saturday evening. Light rail will stop operating at 6 p.m. to give personnel time to secure gate arms and other equipment before the brunt of the storm arrives. Bus and Metro subway will cease operations at 9 p.m. Mobility will accommodate only scheduled medical trips after 9 p.m. Inter County Connector Bus service will be suspended at 9 p.m.

Wherever people take shelter from the wind and rain Saturday and Saturday night, they may find the lights are out. BGE said more than 500,000 customers could lose power Saturday afternoon as high winds bring down branches, trees and wires. Outages could last for days. The utility has 3,700 workers standing by for repairs.

Hurricane Irene howled ashore in North Carolina with heavy winds, rain and surf on Saturday on a path threatening the densely populated U.S. East Coast with flooding and power outages.

The eye of the storm crossed the North Carolina coast near Cape Lookout around 7:30 a.m., forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Irene was moving north-northeast along the coast and was expected to remain a hurricane as it hit the mid-Atlantic states on Saturday night and New England on Sunday.

With winds of 85 miles per hour, Irene had weakened to a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, but forecasters warned that it remained a large and dangerous storm.

Baltimore residents woke up Saturday to a humid day and continued their storm preparations.

By 8 a.m. in Fells Point, vendors like One Straw Farm and Bonaparte Breads were selling produce and pastries in the square like they always do on Saturday mornings. But the action was at the foot of Broadway where the city had dumped a few small mountains of sand. There, people were making sandbags, which they hoped would keep water from their homes and businesses.

Quite a few shops and residences along Broadway and Thames, where flood risk is high, had already stacked dozens of them at their thresholds.

At The Daily Grind coffee shop, patrons sat outside, sipping coffee. But in the spot where passersby with dogs can usually buy coffee without entering the restaurant with their animals, the "doggy window" was closed, with an apology taped to it. "Word is," it said, "a hurricane is comin'."

The Maryland State Fair reiterated Saturday morning that the fair and thoroughbred horse racing will be open, but officials are monitoring conditions. The 4-H/FFA Livestock Sale has been postponed, however.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake declared a state of emergency Friday and said Baltimore's emergency services are ready for the storm. She urged residents to be sure they're ready, too.

She suggested they gather up canned food, a can opener, bottled water for at least two days, batteries and a radio "to make sure you can stay safe and informed in case of a loss of power."

"Stay tuned to local TV and radio stations and listen for instructions from city officials," she said. "Make sure you have a personal family plan to shelter in place or to evacuate if told to do so."

Bob Maloney, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Preparedness, said the National Weather Service's storm surge models forecast no disastrous storm surge for Baltimore.

He acknowledged that forecasters missed the 8- to 9-foot surge that inundated the Inner Harbor and Fells Point during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003. But he said the weather service has improved its storm surge models since then. "What we're doing is preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," he said.

All weekend events in Anne Arundel and Baltimore County schools have been canceled. School districts had not decided whether school will be held Monday — the first day of classes for students in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties.

In Annapolis, Mayor Joshua J. Cohen declared a state of emergency and urged all residents in low-lying areas to evacuate their communities by Saturday afternoon. Annapolis High School is being opened as a pet-friendly shelter at 4 p.m. Saturday for those who cannot find shelter with friends or relatives.

Residents of Anne Arundel County's flood-prone areas were being warned to take precautions. South County, which has long-established picturesque communities along rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, is especially vulnerable

"If they were flooded in Isabel — heads up — you probably will be likely to flood again," said Tracie Reynolds, an Anne Arundel County spokeswoman.

Mayors of both Annapolis and Baltimore said they will open city parking garages for residents who need to move their cars to higher ground. Parking will be free for those residents.

Starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, residents may park in the Caroline Street Garage, 805 S. Caroline St.; Fleet and Eden Street Garage, 501 Eden St.; and Edison Parking Lots at Fallsway and High streets. Residents in flood-prone areas in South Baltimore, Cherry Hill and Westport may move their vehicles to stadium Lot O. Vehicles must be moved out by 7 a.m. Monday.

Ocean City officials said public transit was shut down at 5 p.m. Friday, and the town's wastewater treatment plant was taken off line at 6 p.m. It should be running again late Sunday, depending on the storm's impact.

Amtrak is canceling many East Coast trains, with service reductions beginning Saturday and no trains operating in the Northeast on Sunday. Call 800-USA-RAIL or go to for updated information.

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport expects major disruptions over the weekend. Spokesman Jonathan Dean said preparations have been made to keep the airport open. Generators are fueled, emergency vehicles are ready and the airfield has been inspected and the drainage system cleared of debris.

The commercial airlines that serve BWI are expected to cancel the majority of their flight operations starting late morning or early afternoon Saturday, Dean said. The airlines will likely resume normal operations Sunday afternoon, depending on conditions. Southwest said the airline will temporarily suspend afternoon and evening service to and from BWI Saturday.

At local hospitals, plans are in place to ensure that a ready staff is on hand. They have been stockpiling supplies for patients and staff.

At Johns Hopkins, generators are fueled and ready in case of power outages, and early deliveries of food, water, medicines and other supplies are expected, said spokeswoman Ellen Beth Levitt. Additional staff is scheduled in adult and pediatric emergency departments and in the facilities department. Accommodations are being made for them if they come early or stay after their shifts.

"We have advised staff of the current forecast projections, just as we would during a pending snowstorm," said Bill Seiler, a spokesman at University of Maryland Medical Center. "In addition, we have asked staff scheduled to work this weekend to plan for the possibility that strong winds and rain coupled with fallen trees and flooded roads could extend the time it takes to get to work on time."

At the Maryland State Fairgrounds, all events will continue as scheduled until officials receive more precise information about when the storm will hit the area, said Grove Miller, chairman of the fair's board.

"We can shut down very quickly," Miller said. The Ferris wheel can withstand 90-mph winds, even without removing the carts, he said, but if wind speeds are predicted to be higher, they will take it and another tall ride down.

If they do decide to close, they will put an announcement on the fair website and alert media, he said. "We certainly don't want anybody to be hurt. If we do err, it will be on the cautious side."

Several Maryland universities have changed their move-in schedules for freshmen and returning students in anticipation of Hurricane Irene.

At Towson University, first-year students were scheduled to move in Saturday but will instead move in on Monday. Returning students were scheduled to move in Sunday and will instead move in on Tuesday. The university also shuffled its schedule of orientation events.

First-year students will still move into the University of Maryland, Baltimore County on Saturday, but they will be allowed into their rooms earlier in the day than scheduled if families are worried about travel plans. New students will also be permitted to move in Monday if they don't plan to travel until after the storm.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, check-in for arriving students will proceed on Saturday and Sunday. But any students who are unable to reach campus because of the weather will be permitted to check in on Monday or Tuesday.

About a third of Goucher College students have already moved in, but check-in for the rest was shifted from Sunday to Monday.

At Salisbury University, move-in was tentatively rescheduled for Monday.

Reuters and Baltimore Sun reporters Meredith Cohn, Jill Rosen, Liz F. Kay, Childs Walker, Liz Bowie and Andrea Siegel contributed to this article.