People can really get charged up over Isabel

TO SEE THE Isabel panic for myself, I went to Home Depot yesterday because there is simply no better place to be with a hurricane bearing down on you than a store the size of a NATO base that offers 15 varieties of duct tape.

Even early in the morning, the first faint whiffs of fear were in the air.

The flashlight section had been just about wiped out - only a few forlorn-looking lantern-type lights were left. A new supply of C and D batteries was just about gone.

Corrugated drain pipe, tarp covers, plastic sheeting, mop buckets, window-well covers, bags of sand - all of it was flying off the shelves as Isabel approached. The supply of sump pumps was low. Portable generators had been sold out since Monday.

And the beauty of the whole thing was: This was a Home Depot in Cockeysville, for God's sake, where all we were going to get was a little wind and rain.

I couldn't imagine what it was like at a hardware store near the Outer Banks. They must have been clubbing each other over the head for the last box of thumbtacks.

At one point, a Home Depot guy wheeled a huge whole-house generator out into the middle of the aisle, and we all stopped to ogle it like it was a brand new Lamborghini.

"How much?" I asked.

The guy read off the box: "Twenty-six hundred."

"Four thousand dollars - installed," Mark Sentman, a store supervisor, told me. "It's the last one we have."

He said this baby would run everything in your house, up to 10 circuits, if the power went out.

Think about that for a moment. The hurricane hits, the power goes out and outside your door, it's Armageddon. Armed mobs roam the streets in the darkness, setting cars on fire, looting and pillaging as the floodwaters get higher.

But you'd be good to go at your place.

The fridge would be working, you could watch Seinfeld re-runs on TV, the kids could IM their little buddies on the computer.

All this for four grand. How could you beat that?

For a moment, I thought of saying, "Bring this baby out to my car" and putting the generator on the corporate credit card, just to see one of the company bean-counters stiffen and keel over at the sight of my expense report.

But then I thought: Nah, you're already going to lose your house in a vicious hurricane. Better not get fired along with it.

Oh, it was a weird day. All this anxiety in the aisles of Home Depot, and outside the sky was blue and the sun was shining and the air was clear.

"Hard to imagine, with a day like today, that something's gonna come," said Scott Ray, the store's supervisor of sales to professional contractors.

But something was coming, all right, only no one knew exactly what. And Ray was already seeing a wonderful side of human nature emerging, the side which looks at a possible natural disaster in the making and thinks: How can I cash in on this?

"People are coming in and they want to buy 500 sheets of plywood," Ray said. "We're afraid

they're just going to gouge their customers."

So the store was putting a 50-sheet limit on plywood sales, in order to spread out the supply, which was making some of the local hurricane entrepreneurs less than happy.

Anyway, as I roamed the aisles, I overheard a few customers say they had just come from watching reports about Isabel on the cable stations and were now officially convinced the world was coming to an end.

This, of course, is what the cable stations do best. Terrorist alerts, anthrax attacks, sniper shootings, hurricane tracking - they whip you into a frenzy, all right.

At one point yesterday, when I happened to turn to the Fox News Channel, they went live to their man at Indian Beach, N.C., Jonathan Serrie.

I watched him standing on the shore, the sun shining, the waves cascading gently behind him, the wind barely rippling his thick, brown hair, and I thought: Why is this man there? There is absolutely nothing going on.

It would be one thing if he were pinned to the dock in howling 110-mph winds and pleasure boats were flying through the air behind him and waves the size of small mountains were crashing ashore.

Sure, then let's go to our man Jonathan Serrie at Indian Beach, N.C.

Otherwise, let's go somewhere else. Somewhere where there's actually news.

Anyway, when I finally left Home Depot a little before noon, there was exactly one four-pack of D batteries left.

For a moment, I thought about making a grab for it. But then I figured I'd have to fight off the six or seven other people standing there, including two old ladies with shopping carts.

Some of these grannies, boy, you don't want to mess with them.

They look kind of frail and all. But then you take their batteries and they roll up their sleeves and give you that hard stare and say: "Put down the batteries, sonny, and no one gets hurt."

It's usually best to do what they say.