Hurricane Floyd lurched through Maryland yesterday like an aging fighter, making plenty of trouble but past its prime.
The storm's hammering winds and rain closed schools and businesses, disrupted travel, flooded streets and basements, and downed trees and power lines throughout the region. Hundreds of people were forced from their homes by rising water, and hundreds more were stranded in stalled trains in Baltimore.
Some of the worst flooding was in Cecil County, where more than 600 people fled the town of North East. Rain and tides combined to send the North East River over its banks, threatening homes and the two bridges into town. Parts of the Route 272 bridge were washed away.
On the Eastern Shore, more than 100 residents were evacuated from Crisfield, where southeast winds and surging tides triggered flooding that Somerset County emergency services chief Steven R. Marshall said was "as bad as I've ever seen it."
Statewide, about 600,000 homes were left without electric power by the time Floyd was downgraded to a tropical storm at 5 p.m. and left the state. In the Baltimore region, 490,000 Baltimore Gas and Electric customers lost power, the most in two decades. By midnight, 322,000 BGE customers were still without power.
For only the second time in 18 years, BGE called for help from neighboring utilities, a spokeswoman said. BGE had 300 crews working through the night, with service to some areas not expected to be restored until Sunday.
Thirty-four crews from Allegheny Power; 20 from American Electric Power, a multistate utility sending workers from Indiana and Southern Virginia; 16 from Central Illinois Public Service; and 30 from Ameren in St. Louis are coming to Maryland to assist BGE.
Thirty 30 crews specializing in tree removal were en route from Roanoke, Va.
But while its torrential downpours exceeded 10 inches in some areas, Floyd's winds and tides fell short of the dire forecasts, sparing bayfront and coastal communities from the catastrophe that many had feared.
A 17-member federal emergency response team arrived in Pikesville yesterday afternoon to conduct damage assessments, if needed. But state officials doubted that any county would report the $5 million in damage needed to qualify for federal assistance.
"We're very, very fortunate. It had minimal impact in the state," said David McMillion, the director of Maryland's Emergency Management Agency. "We had some areas that had some significant damage, but we are fortunate that we did not end up with the impact of the hurricane directly."
However, North East residents would not call it "minimal."
The storm sent the North East River -- at the northern extreme of the Chesapeake Bay -- surging into residents' yards. It swept away branches, trash and tires and made streets impassable.
"The water was up at least to my hip," said Melissa Cook McKenzie, North East's town administrator.
As the river washed over the tops of parked cars and trucks, residents feared that the main bridge leading into downtown would be closed. Eighty-five residents from two neighborhoods and two trailer parks sought shelter at a Red Cross shelter, according to Cecil County Department of Emergency Services spokesman Mike Dixon.
Maryland National Guard trucks laden with sandbags were dispatched to North East to help battle the flooding.
When the water rises
In Elkton, Elk Creek turned furious, rising to the first-floor windows of small homes and trailers. A 13-year-old boy stuck in a tree was rescued by Cecil County firefighters as the 10-foot-deep Elk Creek rushed beneath him. He was treated for hip and leg pains and possible hypothermia.
Couches, chairs and home fuel tanks were floating toward the bay.
"All my goodies are in there my CD player, my TV. I got out while the getting was good," said Kenny Aleshire, 28, who had to abandon his home near Elk Creek.
In Essex in eastern Baltimore County, rainwater swept 10-year-old Andrew Keatts into a storm drain. The torrent carried him nearly 300 feet through the buried pipe before firefighters opened a manhole cover and pulled him to safety. The boy was unhurt.
In St. Mary's County, 26 people were rescued by boats from a trailer park, homes and stranded cars as the St. Mary's River and other waterways overflowed. Many residents were taken to a nearby shelter, including Diane Bean who sat shivering with her small, wet dog in her lap.
"I was scared coming out on the boat because the current was so strong," she said. "The water was rising around the trailer park in all directions, moving fast."
The only reported Maryland fatality linked to the storm was a high school principal in Princess Anne who suffered a heart attack early yesterday while setting up a shelter at Washington High School. Ronald Harder, 57, had just finished moving mats at the shelter.
Ocean City was hunkered down near the center of the storm's track, fearing floods and 70-mph winds. Instead, the resort escaped with minor flooding. Winds were a meek 20 to 30 mph as the storm drove through, but began gusting over 45 mph as darkness fell.
"We were lucky again," said Mayor James N. Mathias Jr., who toured the city in waders. "We just have to pick up and move on."
The lights stayed on, and only 71 people used the city's shelter. The surf topped out at 10 feet, and by 3: 30 p.m. it was over save for some gusty winds and puddles.
Floyd foiled the forecasters. After making landfall near Wilmington, N.C., it tracked farther to the east than they had guessed on Wednesday, then swept across southeastern Virginia and coastal Maryland much more rapidly than expected.
Blocked by a low-pressure system to the west, Floyd was caught by the steering winds of the jet stream and dragged north and east, swirling up the Delmarva coast at 30 mph.
"Mercifully, since the storm is moving pretty fast, the rainfall amounts are being held down," said National Weather Service meteorologist Michelle Margraf.
As it was, Floyd dropped prodigious amounts of rain, the heaviest on the Eastern Shore. Radar estimates approached 14 inches in places. Accumulations topped 10 inches in eastern Kent, Queen Anne's and northern Caroline counties.
More than 10 inches fell on Annapolis by midafternoon. There was 8.6 inches at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, more than 5.8 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, 5.2 inches at the Maryland Science Center and 4.3 inches at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
Some of the strongest winds were clocked in Central Maryland, more than 100 miles from the storm's center. A buoy in the bay off Calvert County recorded a 67-mph gust at 1 p.m. yesterday. Instruments high on the broadcast towers at TV Hill in Baltimore recorded a 62-mph gust at 12: 35 p.m.
The track up the coast also kept the Chesapeake Bay on the west side of Floyd's counterclockwise circulation, blowing water down the bay and blunting high tides. Most averaged just 2 to 3 feet above normal, Margraf said.
In some of the best news from the storm, Gary Fisher, a spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey, said the rains "will probably erase the drought. We'll certainly be in much better shape after this hurricane than we were before, but it would be premature to say the drought's over."
Yesterday, there was more than enough water to go around.
In Baltimore's Mount Washington commercial district, where Western Run meets the Jones Falls, both streams were surging by 1 p.m. Public Works Director George G. Balog issued a mandatory evacuation order for more than a dozen businesses around the Mount Washington Mill complex. But not everybody left.
Balog was dismayed that a facility devastated by Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was not closing. Fortunately, the floodwaters began to recede yesterday evening without serious damage, a Public Works spokesman said.
In Havre de Grace, it was Lilly Run -- not the often dangerous Susquehanna River -- that ran over its banks. The flood closed all roads into the river town, isolating Harford Memorial Hospital in the center of town.
At 6 p.m. on Smith Island, eight miles off Crisfield, water covered virtually all of the town of Ewell.
"You wanna buy waterfront? 'Cause we've got nothing but waterfront here today," said waterman Francis "Hoss" Parks Jr. "All you can see is sea. It's whitecappin' in the yard."
Another islander, artist Reuben Becker, said the water rose within 5 inches of his kitchen. "You could have taken a boat straight from my door to Point Lookout," 20 miles west across the bay, he said. The goldfish in his pond were AWOL.
Widespread power loss
The storm's impact on utilities was immense. Almost half of BGE's customers were affected. PEPCO reported 63,000 customers without power in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Delmarva Power & Light, which serves customers on the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia, reported 36,300 without power last night.
Winds played havoc with transportation. About 9: 30 a.m., a westbound Ryder tractor-trailer whose driver ignored wind restrictions on the Bay Bridge was blown over, creating a 2-mile log jam for several hours.
Fallen tree limbs stranded five trains carrying a total of about 1,000 passengers -- in an inaccessible stretch of track in West Baltimore.
After waiting hours for relief, more than 100 passengers, some up to two miles from the nearest safe road access, began to force open doors and wander the tracks in search of food.
"I watched a 70-year-old woman cross over a barbed-wire fence and slide down a hill on her back because she was hungry," said New Yorker Linda Majors, who was traveling home from Washington.