Md. bracing for threat of Isabel

This one does not look good - certainly not if you listen to the professionals who get paid for coordinating the emergency response in the face of a monster like Hurricane Isabel.

Across Maryland yesterday, from Ocean City condominiums to Inner Harbor marinas to isolated Smith Island, people were scrambling to prepare for what could be the worst hurricane to strike the state since 1954.


Isabel - with pounding rains, high tides and winds that could easily exceed 100 mph - was still three or four days away, but there was no time to spare in the ominous calm before the storm.

Utilities gassed up work-crew vehicles and prepared for a flood of repairs. Shop owners brought in everything that could blow away. Residents and businesses made a run on plywood and portable generators. And at the Inner Harbor, newly filled marinas had to turn away worried boaters from other, less protected ports.


"This is a big hurricane, and it's aimed at us," said Clay B. Stamp, director of emergency services for Ocean City. "What we have to do is find that fine line between overreaction and under-reaction."

In Annapolis, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. urged Marylanders to assemble a disaster supply kit - including flashlights, extra batteries and drinking water - in case the storm hits the state with its full fury. He said emergency workers are making preparations in case some communities need to be evacuated.

The Bay Bridge could be converted to carry all westbound traffic "at a moment's notice" if necessary to get people off the Eastern Shore, Ehrlich said. He said the bridge would be closed if wind speeds reach an unsafe level.

"We're hoping that [Isabel] takes a turn right and goes out to the ocean, but if it does not, we're ready," Ehrlich said.

Officials made plans to open the state's emergency operations center at Camp Fretterd in Reisterstown this morning to coordinate the emergency response.

Leaves have been canceled for essential state workers.

The state Department of Natural Resources was taking its boats out of the water where possible and moving larger craft to safer harbors. The agency urged private boat owners to do the same.

"We're making plans for all of our boats to go to safer ports," added Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Andrew Ely. "Any boats that we can, we will put on a trailer and if we've got a brick building to store them in, we will."


Dennis R. Schrader, director of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security, called Isabel the most powerful storm to threaten Maryland since Hurricane Hazel came up the Chesapeake Bay in 1954, and said the probability is "very high" that it will hit the state.

Schrader said authorities will probably know by late today or early tomorrow whether evacuations will be necessary. He said flooding is a particular concern because the ground is saturated in many parts of the state.

Isabel had been a Category 5 storm - the strongest possible, with winds above 155 mph. It's weakening as it moves toward the United States, though not nearly enough for comfort.

Meteorologists believe it will be a Category 3 storm when it hits U.S. soil, probably in North Carolina's Outer Banks, and might remain at that level - with winds between 111 mph and 130 mph - as it heads this way.

If it follows its current path, it would cut through central Maryland late Thursday or early Friday.

Wayne Robinson, emergency operations chief in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore, knows from experience that a relatively minor Category 1 hurricane with winds of 74 mph and accompanying storm tides could flood half his low-lying county. He said he doesn't want to think about a storm that could pack twice that strength.


"We're all watching the forecast and the computer projections of how it will track, and this one looks like it's coming straight up the Chesapeake Bay," Robinson said. "That's my worst fear."

Gen. Warner I. Sumpter, assistant adjutant general, said the Maryland National Guard might have to shift some of its resources around the state because of a high level of deployments of the Guard in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that of its 6,500 to 6,800 members, the Guard has 1,300 to 1,500 overseas.

"We're down, but we're not down so much that it would impact our response," Sumpter said.

Around the area yesterday, local officials held emergency planning meetings and double-checked critical equipment.

Baltimore's reservoirs are full, but the dams are sturdy, officials said. The three water filtration plants can operate on generators if the electricity goes out.

But an outage could shut down pumping stations that move water to higher-elevation neighborhoods, such as Catonsville, Owings Mills, Timonium, Hunt Valley and the northwest and northeast sections of the city.


Officials suggest that residents there set aside some drinking water, just in case.

City public works employees spent the day fixing clogged drains and other problems that could add to flooding in heavy rains.

"We are preparing ... as if the storm is coming directly at us," said Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Businesses also were preparing for the worst.

Officials at Comcast, the cable company, said they have been filling generators with gasoline, lining up vehicles to pick up employees stuck at home and stocking facilities with food should people get stuck at work.

Giant cranes disassembled stacks of cargo containers - like children pulling down towers of building blocks - at Dundalk Marine Terminal yesterday as the port of Baltimore braced for heavy winds.


Pepco, which supplies power to Washington and the majority of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, has filled its warehouses with extra telephone poles, transformers and other parts that might need to be installed in the field. Both Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. have asked out-of-state utilities to send work crews to help.

"This is a storm of tremendous magnitude," said BGE spokesman Robert L. Gould. "We're taking this extremely seriously."

Ocean City and other parts of the Eastern Shore are in particular danger of damage because the east side of a hurricane is the worst, said Scott Kiser, hurricane program manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The worst storm in the resort town's history - 70 years ago last month - was a Category 3 hurricane, so a repeat performance has people nervous.

"We're installing hurricane shutters on the front windows now," Denny Mitchell, acting store manager for the Food Lion in Ocean City, said at lunchtime yesterday. "Sales aren't that great because people are leaving town, [but we're] selling tons of water, canned goods, batteries, flash lights, can openers - all the basics."

Ocean City officials were going ahead with plans for the resort's annual Sunfest from Thursday through Sunday, though some jokingly dubbed it "Stormfest."


Ocean City Mayor James N. Mathias Jr. said 150,000 visitors have been expected in addition to an estimated 100,000 visitors and residents already in town.

Mathias was reluctant yesterday to cancel or postpone the season-ending festival, noting that step was taken in 1989 only to have Hurricane Hugo veer off toward the Carolinas.

"We had a beautiful day here," the mayor recalled.

Many hotels are booked for the event, so there's not much the owners can do to prepare for the hurricane, said Susan Jones, executive director for the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association. Places with vacancies are pulling in their balcony furniture.

"We've not had a bad one in a long time," Jones said.

Mark Elliott, owner of Elliott's Hardware in Ocean City, said his two stores were sold out of duct tape, batteries and flashlights yesterday afternoon, while the plywood - for boarding up windows - was almost gone. He expected to be restocked by tomorrow for the procrastinators.


"People are pretty concerned," said Mike Milbourne, owner of Clarence Sterling & Son in Crisfield. "If you look at the Weather Channel, the storm looks bigger than the state of Florida."

Manager Sharon Harris called in two extra workers to help out yesterday with the rush of customers at Harris Ace Hardware in Princess Anne. Six anxious people in need of supplies had lined up at the front and back doors before the store opened at 8 a.m.

"It has been nonstop since I got here," Harris said.

Julie Smith, co-owner of the Angler restaurant and marina in Ocean City, has never boarded up her business for anything but the onset of winter. Hurricane Isabel is shaping up to be the exception.

Smith bought two dozen sheets of plywood Sunday, and she moved one of her boats out of town for good measure.

"It's a huge storm," she said, "and I think it's better to be safe than sorry."


On Smith Island, residents were equally concerned, fastening down or taking in anything that could be blown away by heavy winds. Some larger boats were moved and left heavily moored in the relatively protected waters of the Pocomoke and Nanticoke rivers.

Betty Jo Tyler, whose family runs a fleet of boats, including tourist cruise boats and a 65-foot "school boat" that hauls students to classes in Crisfield, said that many of her neighbors would wait until tomorrow before deciding whether to leave their homes for a stay in a shelter in Princess Anne or with relatives on the mainland.

Still, she had a normal day yesterday - as abnormal as that may seem.

"You wouldn't believe it, but I still have people calling, wanting to get reservations to come over this week," said Tyler. "There was a lady with five kids who wanted to come. She must not read or see the news."

Sun staff writers Heather Dewar, Hanah Cho, Doug Donovan and Frank D. Roylance contributed to this article.

Getting ready for a storm


Emergency agencies recommend that Maryland residents take measures to protect themselves, their homes and their pets.

To prepare:

Clean out gutters.

Remove outdoor antennas, if possible.

Keep trash cans sheltered.

Store valuables and personal papers in waterproof container.


Turn refrigerator and freezer to coldest setting in anticipation of power outage. Open door only when necessary and close quickly.

Bring in lawn furniture, toys and garden tools. Anchor objects that might be wind-tossed.

Keep on hand:

Flashlights, a battery-powered radio and extra batteries.

A basic first-aid kit.

Emergency food and water and a can opener.


For pets, a three-day supply of food and water.

Sturdy leashes, harnesses and carriers for pet transport, along with towels and blankets for warmth. (Many evacuation shelters won't accept pets, so the Humane Society urges people to plan early where they will take their pets in case of an emergency.)

In the storm:

Avoid low areas; don't attempt to drive over flooded roads.

Use battery-powered lights for lighting. Avoid using candles, especially if using a kerosene heater or lantern.

More information is available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site: