Marylanders prepare, but Ernesto's no Isabel

September 01, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance and Nick Shields | Frank D. Roylance and Nick Shields,Sun reporters

Emergency managers, residents of low-lying areas and those with a leaky roof or basement up and down the mid-Atlantic Coast braced for heavy rain and high water expected today with the arrival of Tropical Storm Ernesto.

The storm, which weakened to a tropical depression as it crossed Florida on Wednesday, revived yesterday to near hurricane strength as it drifted over the Atlantic Ocean and headed north.

Ernesto made landfall last night near Long Beach, in southern North Carolina, and was expected to slog north today on a track west of the Chesapeake Bay. Top sustained winds in the hours before landfall were about 70 mph.

Forecasters scaled back earlier forecasts for 5 to 10 inches of rain across the region as some computer models moved the storm track closer to the Chesapeake. But 4 to 8 inches were expected today as Ernesto moves into Maryland and Virginia. Rain should taper off tomorrow.

Flash flood warnings were posted for all of Maryland. Some coastal flooding is also possible as the storm draws in stiff east winds, driving bay water into the rivers and creeks on the Western Shore.

High tides today could rise 2 1/2 feet above normal. At high tide near midnight last night at Baltimore's Harborplace, well before the storm's arrival, water was flowing over the seawall and was several inches deep on Constellation Dock.

A track closer to the bay could bring lower air pressure and higher water to the Western Shore, meteorologists said.

For many who experienced Tropical Storm Isabel in September 2003, that scenario evoked memories of an unexpected 8-foot storm surge and catastrophic bay flooding.

"Forecasters suggest that's not going to happen," said Jeff Welsh, a spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "But no one here is sitting back and saying, `Well, that's a load off our minds.' We're going to watch this very closely."

Protective sandbags were in place early today around Baltimore's World Trade Center, which flooded during Isabel. Also watching closely are residents of low-lying areas who suffered through that storm.

From her Bowleys Quarters home, built in accordance with Federal Emergency Management Agency regulations, about 12 feet above the ground on the foundation of the one destroyed by Isabel, Eleanor Schuman can see the waters of the Chesapeake Bay lapping against her backyard.

She moved into the house about a year ago, after spending 13 months in a motel. Memories of the storm and its fury are still fresh. "Dear God in heaven, I can't take another one," she said.

Schuman, 65, plucked red and pink roses from her garden yesterday afternoon as a radio reported Ernesto's progress.

About 2,000 Marylanders were evacuated when Isabel struck around dinnertime Sept. 18, 2003, destroying homes and submerging parts of Baltimore and Annapolis among other areas. Of the 212 people forced to live in trailers provided by FEMA, about 10 are still living there, Welsh said.

Since Isabel, David Cullum, 49, Schuman's son, has worked as a neighborhood handyman. Yesterday he was armed with a nail gun and cigarette as he put new shingles on a neighbor's shed. He said he was determined to fix the roof before the storm.

He said he has had trouble sleeping, waking about every two hours, since he learned that Ernesto could be headed this way.

"I love the water, but I don't like what the water can do," he said.

The heaviest rains were likely here this morning as the tropical air ahead of Ernesto's center collides with a stalled cold front. That will force the warmer air to rise, cool and drop its moisture as rain. The storm's center is expected to move through Maryland late today.

Rivers and streams will rise quickly, and urban flooding is possible. The main stems of the larger rivers will be slower to rise as the weekend goes by. Hydrologists said conditions have been so dry that the major rivers would reach flood stage only under a "worst-case scenario."

MEMA planned a Level 2 activation of the state's Joint Operations Center this morning. That will place eight MEMA and National Guard personnel on duty to handle calls and coordinate requests for assistance from local governments, Welsh said.

Annapolis had more than 500 sandbags ready to protect businesses along the frequently flooded City Dock.

Allen Paul, 63, who lost three cars to Isabel, used a few sandbags to plug the walkway gap in a low brick wall that stands between the bay and his house in Bowleys Quarters. "I don't think this will be like Isabel, but I'm not taking any chances," he said.

His neighbor, Al Garner, 58, was trimming branches to prevent them from breaking during the storm and damaging his house. "You enjoy all the good days, and you don't look forward to the other days that you know will come," he said.

Welsh advised people who live near flood-prone areas to "do the prudent thing and stay as far from the water as they can." Five people, including two teenage boys, drowned in June when they were swept away by flooded Frederick County streams.

Ernesto caused significant flooding yesterday in Charleston, S.C. In Virginia, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine declared a state of emergency as Ernesto gained strength over the Atlantic. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley activated 200 National Guard troops and had other emergency teams on standby.

Tropical storm warnings were posted as far north as the Virginia-North Carolina border. Gale warnings went up for the Chesapeake Bay and for offshore waters as far north as Maryland.

Along Maryland's coast, onshore winds up to 46 mph were expected to produce rough surf, rip currents and beach erosion today. High tide around 2:30 p.m. could rise at least 2 1/2 feet above predicted levels, with minor to moderate tidal flooding. Low-lying areas could flood, and some road damage was possible, forecasters said.

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