- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2011

An impending storm threatening to be the worst to hit the region in nearly a decade has prompted evacuations and declarations of emergency and forced the postponement of the Sunday dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Mall.

The foundation responsible for the dedication of the monument confirmed creeping suspicions with an announcement late Thursday that the ceremonies, highlighted by remarks from President Obama, would be delayed indefinitely because of the storm threat.

“Without question, we are all saddened by this, but we remained optimistic all along,” said Harry E. Johnson, president of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Foundation.

Mr. Johnson said the cancellation was his decision — along with the city and the National Park Service — and stemmed from “concern for public safety of the citizens of D.C. and our visitors.” The storm, which is expected to dump 2 to 5 inches of rain on the D.C. region between Saturday and Sunday afternoons, is also projected to bring wind gusts at times reaching 35 to 40 miles per hour.

The cancellation allows the estimated crowd of 250,000 people that was expected to attend the event to either head out of town, Mr. Johnson said, or cancel plans to travel to the District.

He said it was too early to name a new date for the dedication, but speculated that it would likely be in September or October.

“We need to get through these next couple days,” he said.

The decision reversed earlier pronouncements in which Mr. Johnson insisted the dedication would take place regardless of the fact that Hurricane Irene was heading for the East Coast and could cause torrential rain and high winds in the capital region.

“We did not bring you this far not to have a dedication,” Mr. Johnson said earlier in the day.

Hurricane Irene has the potential to devastate the Northeast, garnering comparisons to 1985’s Hurricane Gloria, which brushed the Outer Banks of North Carolina, hugged the Mid-Atlantic, then eventually hit Long Island and Connecticut, causing roughly $900 million in damage.

The storm has also been compared to 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, which veered inland from the coast of North Carolina toward the District, Maryland and Virginia, where it killed more than 30 people and caused about $1 billion in damage.

Irene is expected to hit coastal Maryland and Virginia with hurricane-force winds, as much as 10 inches of rain and potential life-threatening conditions, but it will likely bring less severe — but still dangerous — conditions to the D.C. area, National Weather Service spokesman Kevin Witt said.

Mr. Witt said Hurricane Irene will probably reach the coast of North Carolina late Saturday morning with strength superior to that of Hurricane Isabel in 2003, but will instead continue up the East Coast toward New England, rather than move toward the District and its suburbs. The D.C. region is expected to have sustained winds of 20 to 25 miles per hour.

“We should see wind, but I don’t think prolonged period of winds,” Mr. Witt said. “We’re going be on the good side of this storm.”

Nonetheless, Maryland and Virginia officials are preparing for the worst, with both states’ governors on Thursday declaring states of emergency.

The executive orders issued by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley direct their states’ National Guards and emergency personnel to mobilize.

Mr. O’Malley said Maryland officials are especially worried about the storm’s effect on the state’s Lower Eastern Shore, including Ocean City — a resort town where local officials on Thursday ordered residents to evacuate by 5 p.m. Friday.

Virginia officials have activated the Virginia Evacuation Coordination Team for Operational Response to assess the storms potential impact, Virginia State Police personnel have been placed on stand-by, and chain-saw crews from the Virginia Department of Forestry are standing by with emergency-response personnel.

“We have fully briefed local government officials throughout the day,” Mr. McDonnell said. “State agencies are preparing for the event in a number of ways. It’s a very serious storm, and Virginians must continue to monitor it.”

D.C. officials also announced Thursday that the D.C. Department of Public Works will offer free sandbags to residents starting Friday afternoon.

Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on Thursday urged residents to heed the safety warnings of local officials.

“I just cannot express this enough,” he said during a conference call with reporters. “If you live in an evacuation zone, you should evacuate.”

Mr. Fugate said residents should monitor local television and radio broadcasts and that the loss of cellphone service during Tuesday’s earthquake showed the emerging value of Facebook, Twitter and other social-media sites to send and receive information.

While officials are urging residents to stay out of harm’s way, utility companies are preparing for power outages throughout the region.

Pepco — the primary energy provider to the District and much of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties — is bringing in 150 utility workers from Ohio and was requesting even more assistance Thursday afternoon, company spokesman Andre Francis said.

The utility company has also secured 340 extra utility contractors in advance of the storm, as well as 330 workers on tree-clearing crews.

Pepco has often been criticized for past failures to restore power after even minor storms, but Mr. Francis said the company has recently enacted several new policies that could prove beneficial, including now dispatching crews from locations throughout its coverage area, rather than just from a single service center in Bethesda.

“We’re definitely trying to get ahead of this and make sure we have all of the resources that we can possibly have,” he said. “Every single storm is different, but we learn from every single one of them.”

The storm is also expected to cause flight delays at Washington Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, where officials said Thursday they are not making any specific preparations other than watching the forecasts and urging flight passengers to remain aware of any rescheduling done by airlines.

Ground travel could also be affected, as Metro officials are planning to place sandbags at flood-prone rail stations and keep additional staff on duty to clear drainage areas. Officials also plan to use chain saws to clear downed trees on rail or bus routes.

Amtrak announced Thursday it has already canceled most of this weekend’s train service south of the District, while service north of the District has yet to be disrupted.