Weather forecasters placed the Maryland and Delaware coasts and the lower Chesapeake Bay under a Hurricane Watch. That means hurricane conditions are possible within 48 hours. Baltimore, the Western Shore from Cecil County south, and the rest of the Chesapeake Bay were all under a Tropical Storm Warning.
The National Hurricane Center said Irene's projected path had crept farther to the west during the day
Instead of passing Delmarva at some distance offshore, as had been hoped, Irene's core winds are more likely to pass right over the mid-Atlantic beaches or just inland.
Forecasters at AccuWeather.com have predicted that Irene has the potential for the "worst hurricane impacts in 50 years along the northern part of the Atlantic seaboard."
The Giant supermarket on York Road just north of the city line was hopping by 7 a.m. Friday with checkout lines three and four deep as people stocked up on supplies before the storm. People were loading up carts with bottled water, bread, snacks and, yes, toilet paper.
"Batteries?" a clerk said to a customer before pointing her to a picked-over display. "What's out there is all we got, hon."
Irene's arrival will mark the first time that a dangerous tropical system has threatened Maryland since 2003, when Tropical Storm Isabel battered dozens of waterfront communities. The evacuation of Ocean City, which was to begin at midnight Friday, was the first in more than two decades. The last time beach-goers were ordered to leave was in 1985, when Hurricane Gloria hit, town officials said.
"We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the town of Ocean City.
Ed McDonough, a spokesman for Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said the agency has been coordinating with local officials across the state, and plans to closely monitor the storm from its headquarters in Reisterstown.
"People should be monitoring the weather forecasts," said McDonough. "What they need to realize is that storm could veer a big distance, and even 50 miles could have a huge effect on our conditions. This could be a dangerous storm."
BGE was planning for at least 100,000 customers to lose power, but with the ability to scale up the response to cope with several hundred thousand more, if needed.
By mid-day Thursday, at least 108 repair crews — some 300 personnel from as far away as Kentucky — had arrived in Baltimore to assist the utility's own crews in putting the system back together once the storm passes. More were en route.
Roughly 200 bucket trucks and other repair vehicles from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kentucky were parked in rows at an unused parking lot near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Another staging area, for 200 more out-of-state linemen, was being set up on a Lockheed Martin lot in Middle River.
Gary Hall, 53, from Clay City, Ky., is supervising about 200 men assembled from several utilities by the David H. Elliot Co. to help BGE's own crews. "I've worked in 19 states over 34 years, as far north as Philadelphia and all over the South. I enjoy it," said Hall.
His crews worked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "We didn't have rooms for about a week; we slept in our trucks," he recalled.
They'll have it better in Baltimore. The "external" linemen are sleeping in hotels, eating breakfast and dinner in a tent erected on the parking lot near BWI, and taking box lunches out on the job. They'll work 16-hour days, all under the watch of a BGE "guide."
Elsewhere, BGE was beefing up regional command centers in company facilities in White Marsh, in Baltimore County, and in Gambrills, Anne Arundel County.
Rob Gould, vice president for corporate communications, said his office had begun robo-calls to customers alerting people to the storm's approach and reminding them to be prepared for prolonged outages. It is the first time BGE has used the system to reach out to all 1.3 million customers.
Transportation officials were also urging cautions to travelers. The state Department of Natural Resources has ordered closed Assateague State Park and its campgrounds beginning at 11 a.m. Friday and continuing until at least Wednesday morning. The main road into the island, Route 611, will be closed to traffic starting Friday at 7 p.m.
Getting in and out of town may also be hampered by the storm, say officials at BWI, which urged travelers to check with airlines on any delays. The Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the Bay Bridge, said Thursday it had no immediate plans to close any of its toll facilities or roadways.