Nearly a million residents and tourists were urged to evacuate low-lying areas of Florida yesterday in preparation for Hurricane Charley, which is expected to slam into the Gulf Coast today, bringing with it heavy rain, 130-mph winds, swirling tornadoes and up to 17-foot storm surges.
The hurricane was hovering over Cuba last night, gathering strength in the warm water, as Bonnie, downgraded to a tropical depression, migrated north. Bonnie was expected to bring up to 3 inches of rain to the Baltimore area overnight.
About 9 p.m. yesterday, as the leading edge of Bonnie reached Maryland, forecasters issued a tornado warning for Anne Arundel County, but by 9:15 p.m. the winds had died down and no tornado had been reported.
By 10 p.m., a heavy, soaking rain was falling on much of the region. Howard County reported as much as 3 inches of rain, forcing officials to close several flooded streets. Power lines were knocked down in Harford County, and large trees fell in Reisterstown in Baltimore County.
Bonnie is expected to linger over the state until about 2 p.m. today. Charley - or whatever remains of it - is due in Maryland sometime tonight or tomorrow. Forecasters are calling for heavy rains, tropical-storm force winds and tides up to 3 feet above normal through the weekend.
"The whole state is in the bull's-eye for this," said Quentin Banks, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
At marinas and in shore communities, people with vivid memories of the high water delivered by Tropical Storm Isabel in September fretted about what these storms would bring.
"You feel kind of helpless," said Brian Hall, owner of the Old Bay Marina in North Point, which took a pounding from Isabel. "You do so much, and that's all you can do to try to protect your property."
In Annapolis, deputy harbormaster George Ward inspected the docks and handed out a checklist to boat owners unused to violent weather.
"People are forever waiting until the last moment," he said. "But then all of a sudden, when things start getting bad, they start thinking, 'Why didn't I prepare for this?'"
Much will depend on Charley's track, forecasters said, but Maryland can expect 2 to 4 more inches of rain, small-stream flooding, a possibility of a tornado, and tropical-storm force winds of 40 to 45 mph tomorrow night, pushing high tides up to 3 feet above normal.
"We shouldn't see any coastal flooding with those tides," said Luis Rosa, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.
That prediction might calm nerves in Fells Point, Bowleys Quarters and other waterside communities devastated by Isabel's 7-foot storm surge.
"A 3-foot surge? That shouldn't be bad if there's not a lot of wind behind it," Hall said.
Boat owners had not yet showed up yesterday to begin securing their boats and other property, he said: "They'll wait until the last minute. Maybe they'll show, maybe they won't. ... I'm a little disgusted with the way people respond."
A shift in Charley's course could change everything.
"If the storm center tracks much farther west, the bay will get southeast and east winds, which will pile up water into the inlets and bays," Rosa said. "But if the storm tracks much farther east - east of the Atlantic Coast - we'll get northwest winds. They'll pile up water away from the bays and inlets into the Eastern Shore."
The potential for heavy rain and winds spurred BGE to prepare for outages.
"With an already moist soil, the very real potential exists for whole trees to topple onto overhead power lines, leaving some without power for an extended period of time," said Kenneth D. Fontes, BGE's vice president for electric distribution.
In Baltimore yesterday, public works crews were working their way down a list of clogged storm drains and cleaning them out before the rains came.
Residents in the city and suburbs were also reminded that the city's water system has only limited backup power. In the event of power outages, water service could be interrupted.
"Make sure to keep bottled water on hand, several days' supply," Kurt L. Kocher, Public works spokesman, said.
Baltimore County's utilities chief, Bill Frankenfield, said he added a two-man crew to clear clogged storm drains. But he said a day's interval between Bonnie and Charley should help minimize flooding problems: "This isn't something we're wringing our hands over."
In Carroll County, public works Director Douglas Myers said crews spent yesterday clearing drains, inlets and pipes - "anything that could clog and cause us problems."
In Anne Arundel County, officials activated a mass phone-messaging system known as Reverse 911 that delivered warnings to residents in low-lying areas of possible flooding.
In Florida, the evacuation of nearly 800,000 people is the state's largest since 1999 when officials urged 1.3 million to leave their homes in the wake of Hurricane Floyd.
Florida residents boarded up homes and bought bottled water, canned food and batteries.
Sun staff writers Mary Gail Hare, Julie Bykowicz, Dennis O'Brien, Hanah Cho, Sarah Schaffer, Richard Irwin and wire services contributed to this article.