OCEAN CITY, Md. (AP) — Government offices, schools, courthouses and transit systems shut down in the mid-Atlantic region Monday as Hurricane Sandy off the coast kicked up a threatening combination of pounding rain, wind and tidal surges.
Officials implored residents to stay off the roads while imposing evacuation orders that affected thousands of residents in low-lying coastal communities, primarily in Delaware.
In Washington, the federal and local governments closed along with the courts, public schools and the Metro system that serves about 1.2 million weekday customers. Most of Monday’s scheduled flights in and out of the region’s three major airports were canceled. Tourist attractions like the Smithsonian museums were off-limits, and shelters opened to feed and house hundreds.
With Sandy bringing top sustained winds of 85 mph and hurtling on a predicted path toward Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, utilities warned power outages could affect millions and last for a week. Thousands of people in the region had lost power by early Monday afternoon, including more than 5,000 Baltimore Gas & Electric customers.
No part of the region appeared safe from Sandy’s impact. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said his state was “right in the crosshairs” of the storm and urged people to stay off the road for the next 36 hours.
“The days ahead are going to be very difficult,” O’Malley said. “There will be people who die and are killed in this storm.”
In mountainous Western Maryland, a blizzard warning was issued for sections of Garrett County for Monday night into Tuesday morning.
O’Malley said the forecast for Maryland worsened Monday morning, and he predicted Chesapeake Bay flooding would be reminiscent of the worst hurricanes in the state’s history: Gloria in 1985 and Agnes in 1972.
The stormy Atlantic Ocean covered the beach in Ocean City, where an ocean pier was significantly damaged. Tracy Lind, a front desk worker at a Holiday Inn & Suites, said the damaged pier was part of the fabric of the resort town, frequented by fishermen and visited by tourists and locals seeking a close-up look at the ocean.
“It’s kind of like an icon in Ocean City. It’s the closest people can get to the ocean without getting in,” Lind said. “I always thought that it would withstand anything.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said about 100 to 150 feet of the eastern part of the fishing pier was damaged. He also said there was significant flooding in a downtown area where officials had ordered a mandatory evacuation. About 200 people were staying in the evacuated area, police said.
While no injuries have been reported, the flooding is the worst the town has seen since Gloria, Ocean City Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald said.
“The sun will shine in Ocean City again,” Theobald said.
In Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell ordered the evacuation of about 50,000 people in coastal communities while Wilmington, the state’s largest city, evacuated a low-lying area that is home to about 3,000 residents. About 700 people were also ordered to evacuate low-lying Delaware City, a working-class community that’s home to a massive oil refinery.
William Warren, a 76-year-old retired general laborer, said he wasn’t planning to leave.
“Where else am I going to go?” Warren said Monday morning, sitting in his car outside the mobile home where he rents a room. “It’s just going to rain, that’s all.”
At high tide around midday Monday, dark gray waves rolled and crashed along Delaware City’s 10-foot seawall, occasionally spraying over the top. The tide was near the city’s 8.5-foot record. The next high tide, overnight, was forecast to surpass it.
Delaware City Police Chief Dan Tjaden said it’s been hard to convince many of the people in the evacuation zone that there’s a threat because Hurricane Irene did only modest damage in the area last year.
He said authorities have marked the doors of those who refused to evacuate by stretching bright yellow police tape across their front door frames.
“If they need us, they call us,” Tjaden said. “I give them my cell phone number, they give me their cell phone numbers and we just go from there and we hope for the best. Some people just don’t want to leave.”
On Fenwick Island, bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and by Assawoman Bay on the other, Mayor Audrey Serio said she woke up with six inches of water on the ground floor of her home. Neighbors’ homes were also flooded, she said. Al Daisey stood outside his home, warily observing the bay, normally at the end of his street, creeping several feet into his yard.
“Four a.m., this road was dry,” he said.
With the storm still far off, parts of coastal towns in southern Delaware already were under water by midday Monday. Wind-driven high tides swamped streets in Lewes east of the Lewes-Rehoboth canal, and police blocked off a bridge over the canal. The wind and water toppled light poles near the Lightship Overfalls, a National Historic Landmark.
Farther south in Dewey Beach, water from Rehoboth Bay inundated streets on the west side of Route 1, the major coastal highway, and crept up onto the highway itself. Authorities blocked off Route 1 at southern the edge of town because of dune breaches farther south near the Indian River Inlet bridge, which also was closed.
In the Washington area, winds started picking up in the early afternoon, and fire departments began responding to trees falling on homes. No injuries were reported.
The Metro transit system in Washington closed for the first time since Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Officials weren’t expected to decide on restoring service until Monday evening and first needed assurances from utility companies that they would be able to maintain electricity. The system would be restored only when rail and bus travel is considered safe, spokesman Dan Stessel said.
In northern Virginia on Monday morning, roads were passable and traffic was light, reminiscent of an early Sunday morning. In the suburb of Burke, Va., residents were running errands and walking dogs amid heavy rain and little wind. On the Capital Beltway and Interstate 395 — typically choked with traffic before 9 a.m. on weekdays — motorists were slowed only by scattered accidents.
With relatively light winds in Washington Monday morning, some were having fun with the storm. A shirtless man wearing a horse’s-head mask was shown on WRC-TV cameras jogging in the flood-prone Bloomingdale neighborhood, an image that quickly went viral.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)