As the eye of Hurricane Sandy loomed a few hundred miles to the southeast and the monster storm churned toward the Mid-Atlantic coast, Marylanders braced for the arrival of a weather system with the potential to be the most damaging to hit the United States in 75 years.
Heavy rains and some gale-force winds hit the region Sunday evening, and still heavier rains and hurricane-force gusts were expected to strike late Monday and Monday night. Forecasters said the storm, currently rated as a Category 1 hurricane, would likely cause flash flooding, widespread power outages and treacherous road conditions.
As Sandy approached, the East Coast prepared for the worst. Schools and government offices told students and workers to stay home Monday. Hundreds of flights were canceled, while local transit systems shut down. Election officials closed early-voting polls on Monday. And the Maryland National Guard mobilized.
"This storm will be historic, destructive and life-threatening," said Bernie Rayno, a meteorologist with AccuWeather.com, adding that the collision of a cool, low-pressure system from the Midwest and a warm, high-pressure front moving up the coast have created unusually favorable conditions for a devastating storm.
As residents in Ocean City evacuated, people in the Baltimore region got their first taste of the conditions late Sunday and expected to see Sandy intensify by Monday morning and grow steadily worse throughout the day. As of Sunday night, 23 emergency shelters were preparing to open throughout the state.
Traffic on major arteries was light early Monday as motorists apparently heeded warnings to stay off roads as Hurricane Sandy slopped into the region.
Gusty rain fell in sheets on Maryland highways Monday morning, a prelude to the hurricane-force winds and downpour expected to hit later Monday and continue into Tuesday.
Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. mobilized more than 3,000 employees, contractors, out-of-state linemen and other personnel to prepare for extensive system damage and widespread outages in its central Maryland service area, according to Jeannette M. Mills, chief customer officer for BGE.
"We urge customers to prepare, and to review their emergency preparedness plan with their family, as we face the likelihood that Hurricane Sandy will result in extended, widespread power outages lasting several days," she said in a statement.
Forecasters were expecting the huge storm to make landfall sometime Monday, probably somewhere near Atlantic City on the New Jersey Coast. But the storm's breadth means that it's expected to engulf the entire East Coast. Meteorologists said it will be "life-threatening."
President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Maryland Sunday, ordering the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to offer federal aid in support of state and local responders.
"My message to the governors, as well as to the mayors, is anything they need, we will be there," the President said Sunday. "And we're not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city's emergency services were well-prepared for the storm — police and fire stations are fully staffed, she said, and both 911 and 311 are fully operational — but she urged residents to get ready for the hurricane before the gale-force winds hit.
"Prepare your property. Clear all storm drains. Check on your elderly relatives and neighbors and make sure that they are prepared," she said from the city's Emergency Operations Center, which went into operation early Sunday morning. "This is absolutely important."
Now is the time to get prescription drugs, she added, and to make sure the elderly do the same — and, if need be, go to the pharmacy for them before the rains get too heavy.
Baltimore City officials were not expecting to order evacuations, and they anticipated no disruption to Monday morning's commuter traffic, according to Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor's office. But the city was prepared to revise those predictions should conditions change overnight.
Baltimore also established shelters, opening at 9 a.m. Monday at the following locations: