Prepared for worse, Maryland stays calm

Heavy rain reported only over Lower Eastern Shore

Hurricane Charley

August 15, 2004|By Rona Kobell and Chris Guy | Rona Kobell and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Hurricane Charley didn't pack quite the punch the state was bracing for last night and early today, with only light rains reported west of the Chesapeake Bay.

Only parts of the lower Eastern Shore reported heavy rain, with Salisbury and Ocean City taking the brunt of it. By 8 p.m., the National Weather Service called off its tropical storm and flood warnings for the Baltimore metropolitan region.

But yesterday afternoon, before the storm's threat was downgraded, the state was preparing its emergency center, people were pulling out the sandbags, and local officials were getting ready for heavy rains and winds that looked increasingly less likely to come by morning. "We're going to watch this thing closely," said Quentin Banks, spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "These storms can make moves that you don't anticipate."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. authorized the partial activation of the state emergency operations center in Randallstown, where about a dozen representatives from police, highway safety and other agencies spent last night on standby in case local jurisdictions needed help.

Southern Maryland officials called for a voluntary evacuation of low-lying areas and of Point Lookout State Park, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Potomac River. Officials also set up emergency shelters at Leonardtown High School and at Ridge Elementary School. But as of yesterday evening, there were no takers, said Bonnie Stewart, a state police dispatcher in Leonardtown.

On the Eastern Shore, where previous late-summer storms have tested the rural area's emergency preparedness, officials were most concerned about heavy rains.

"I think one of our biggest concerns is trees coming down on power lines because we've had so much rain already in the last couple weeks," said Teresa Owens, emergency services chief in Worcester County. "It's going to take a track straight across the Lower Eastern Shore, but I think we're in good shape."

Owens and her counterparts from coastal counties in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware were reassured by the weather service as they huddled for a briefing late yesterday.

It was a ritual familiar after Hurricane Floyd devastated parts of the Shore in 1999, flooding towns from Cecil County to Smith Island. Last year's Tropical Storm Isabel reminded the Shore once again of the strength these storms can pack as residents from Rock Hall to Oxford contended with high water in their homes.

But by yesterday evening, it became clear that Charley was no Isabel.

"We're now talking about a tropical storm at worst, maybe a tropical depression, not a hurricane," said Richard "Buzzy" Bayles, Ocean City's acting emergency services manager.

In Somerset County, officials were checking reports of flooding in low-lying rural areas, and state highway crews were on standby, said Steve Marshall, emergency operations manager.

In Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley warned residents to clear the area around outdoor storm drains and make sure they had an emergency kit.

Though the city wasn't expecting a storm surge like the one Isabel brought last year, the mayor activated the "reverse 911" system to contact lower Fells Point residents. Officials urged residents to park above Fleet Street and remove valuables from lower floors.

Last night, BWI officials reported light rain and no canceled flights. As of 8 p.m., National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist David Manning said the storm was northeast of Virginia Beach and Maryland looked to be largely out of the woods.

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.

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