Weather forecasters are warning the mid-Atlantic and Northeast to brace for possible tropical storm-force winds, heavy rains and even snow early next week as Hurricane Sandy appears increasingly likely to strike somewhere between the Delmarva peninsula and Cape Cod.
Forecast models that had waffled on potential storm tracks for days began to align Thursday, predicting the category 2 hurricane will head north after passing through the Bahamas, instead of turning out to sea. The storm already is responsible for at least two deaths and extensive damage in Jamaica and Cuba.
Sandy's exact path remains a guessing game, but the impacts are expected to be severe as the storm heads toward major East Coast population centers. The immense storm could impact Maryland as early as late Sunday or early Monday, either in a direct hit or a glancing blow.
It also could converge with polar air to form a monster Halloween storm some government forecasters have dubbed "Frankenstorm."
The outlook had emergency officials and utilities asking residents to begin preparing for power outages, flooding and damage. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has begun mobilizing 1,300 workers for storm crews, officials said Thursday.
The National Hurricane Center's forecast cone called for possible landfall anywhere from North Carolina's Outer Banks to Cape Cod in Massachusetts, with the most likely target the southern New Jersey shore early Tuesday. Precise predictions will change as the storm progresses and meteorologists re-run models.
The European model, which has drawn criticism from meteorologists for over-hyping the potential impact of East Coast storms, was calling Thursday for Sandy to drive up the Delmarva. Other models, like an American one known as the GFS, predicted the storm will strike New York.
The National Weather Service predicted the potential for more than 3 to 4 inches across eastern parts of Maryland from the storm, and a 35 percent chance of tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph in Ocean City through Tuesday.
The Maryland Emergency Management Agency warned of a slow-moving storm that could bring two straight days of heavy rain and strong winds even if Sandy doesn't make landfall in Maryland, causing heavy surf in Ocean City and Assateague Island and wet snow in western Maryland.
The weather service's Hydrometerological Prediction Center projected Sandy would converge with an oncoming front of polar air, combining into a "hybrid vortex" over the mid-Atlantic and Northeast on Monday and Tuesday and possibly into Halloween on Wednesday. The scenario prompted the normally austere weather agency to suggest the Frankenstorm name, "an allusion to Mary Shelley's gothic creature of synthesized elements."
The center also suggested snow was possible on Sandy's southwest side, where the storm could meet the cold air.
BGE officials are monitoring the forecasts and expect "several hundred thousand" customers to lose power, starting late Sunday. The utility said Thursday it is preparing a crew of 1,300 storm and field workers and coordinating with networks that bring in extra crews from outside the state. BGE encouraged customers to prepare for the storm and for outages.
"Although the storm's path is still uncertain and its impact is still several days away, it's extremely important that BGE customers consider what steps they would need to take, particularly given that it is rare for a tropical system to threaten the central Maryland region this late into hurricane season," said Jeannette M. Mills, the utility's chief customer officer, in a statement.
People already began buying portable generators on Thursday as news of the storm's forecast spread. At the Home Depot in Cockeysville, the store's stock of about a dozen generators sold out, with an emergency shipment of more generators expected Friday, manager Matt Thompson said.
The state emergency management agency cautioned that temperatures could drop 20 degrees after the storm passes, with highs in the 50s and lows in the 40s, urging residents to have blankets and warm clothing ready for power outages.
In Baltimore, the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management encouraged residents to make sure they have a battery-powered radio and flashlights with fresh batteries, and at least three gallons of water per person to last them through three days of drinking and sanitation.
Residents also are encouraged to clear debris from storm drains, many of which may be covered with fall leaves.
Sandy would be the first tropical cyclone to affect Maryland this year. While this has been one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, few have made landfall in the United States or been strong. There have been 19 named storms so far this year, tying with the past two seasons and several others for third-most named storms on record.
In August 2011, Hurricane Irene took a similar path as forecast for Sandy, coming up the coast from the south, and caused 756,000 power outages in BGE's territory. About 790,000 BGE customers lost power after Hurricane Isabel struck the Outer Banks and swiped Maryland from southwest.