Hypothetical hurricane blows in

Officials hold drill in event giant storm hits Chesapeake Bay

May 07, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

Outside, it was sunny and 80 degrees.

But inside the Maryland Emergency Operations Center yesterday, there was an epic hurricane brewing - a Category 3 storm named Zoe, headed directly for a Wednesday afternoon landfall at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Evacuations of the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland were already under way as a morning telephone briefing from the National Weather Service warned that Zoe would crash ashore with top sustained winds of 120 mph and gusts to 150 mph.

With only a slight course change, the storm surge could raise water levels in the Chesapeake Bay by 9 to 12 feet. "There's gonna be a nearly unprecedented surge of water coming up the bay," warned Chris Strong, the weather service's warning coordination meteorologist in Sterling, Va.

Zoe was a fiction, of course - invented to enable authorities to test their responses to whatever storms nature might actually have in store.

"Preparing for the worst certainly allows you to be prepared for everything up to the worst," said John W. Droneburg, director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which also coordinates the annual exercise with neighboring jurisdictions and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

More than 80 representatives from 40 state, local and private agencies gathered for the exercise in the Maryland EOC, located at the Camp Fretterd National Guard Armory north of Reisterstown. Participants filled six rows of computer stations as the weeklong simulation neared its climax. A 911 call center on the Eastern Shore reported it was "overwhelmed" by calls to transport homebound and nonambulatory residents out of Denton. Shelters in Bel Air appealed for 10 more staffers. Officials called for 20 more law enforcement officers to help with traffic control as Eastern Shore residents streamed north. A Dundalk shelter wanted 200 more blankets.

Although there's no record of a Category 3 hurricane striking Maryland's coast, Hurricane Felix wasn't far away in 1995 before it moved on. "It was a day and a half from doing something similar to what we're drilling here," Strong said. "It's not inconceivable."

In the Zoe exercise, several Eastern Shore counties had already ordered evacuations on Sunday when the governor's office ordered everyone out.

By Monday, Droneburg said, 140,000 people were at risk from storm surges of 9 to 12 feet on the Eastern Shore. Much of Dorchester County, Ocean City and the island beaches would be under water. If the surge reached Baltimore, the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and bay-shore communities would also be submerged.

Participants consulted each other by computer, phone and in person. Maryland State Police and transportation officials coordinated evacuation routes to prevent closure of the Bay Bridge from stranding Kent Island.

In an afternoon briefing, the state Department of Human Resources reported that 94,000 people were already in shelters. The Department of the Environment warned there would be "no potable water south of Cambridge" in Zoe's wake. The Department of Education said it had found 5,000 pounds of tuna, peaches, green beans and salsa if needed.

A steady stream of problems and responses played out on the Maryland Emergency Management Agency's Web-based communications system. Perhaps most importantly, said Cathy LaFleur of the Red Cross, coming together in person for the Zoe simulation gave participants a chance to know one another better before there's a real emergency. "It's all about the building of relationships and knowing each other's capabilities," she said.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

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