- Associated Press - Saturday, August 27, 2011

OCEAN CITY, Md. — Hurricane Irene began approaching the mid-Atlantic region with heavy rain and ever-strengthening winds Saturday, causing President Obama to declare a state of emergency in Maryland and area officials and residents to brace for the worst.

In the beachfront community of Ocean City, Md., 300 of the city’s 7,000 residents chose not to follow evacuation orders and authorities asked them to remain indoors. In Delaware, hundreds were already at shelters and in Washington, hundreds of cars lined up for up to two hours to receive sandbags.

By Saturday afternoon, the storm appeared to be taking aim at the Delmarva peninsula, the largest such land structure on the East Coast. The peninsula has more than 750,000 residents — exceeding the populations of either Baltimore or Washington — and is home to farm families, watermen, retirees, tourism industry workers and people who commute to jobs in Annapolis, Baltimore and the District.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Irene was likely to hit Ocean City sooner than expected. Authorities anticipated that the eye of the storm would pass “pretty well directly over Ocean City” about midnight Saturday. He said the eye of the storm is about 30 miles wide and should come within 15 to 20 miles of Ocean City.

Officials were anticipating a 3- to 5-foot storm surge.

Mr. O'Malley said there were about 4,040 residents in shelters in the state Saturday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama declared a state of emergency for Maryland.

National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said that the upper Chesapeake Bay could escape the kind of storm surge that caused flooding during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, but the Atlantic coast wasn’t expected to be as fortunate.

Heavy rains across the region also could cause problems because the ground is saturated from recent downpours.

“We believe that 50 mph winds and saturated grounds will be sufficient to topple a number of trees,” said Howard Silverman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Mr. Silverman said hurricane conditions “will mostly be confined to the Eastern Shore. Perhaps we could get a few hurricane-strength gusts reaching the western shoreline of St. Mary’s County,” in southern Maryland. Silverman said the most severe wind conditions would be between 6 p.m. Saturday and 4 a.m. Sunday.

In the District , visitors to the National Mall scurried out of museums and tightly clutched their umbrellas to prevent them from turning inside out.

The city struggled to distribute sandbags, with hundreds of cars lining up for up to two hours to receive them. By about 3 p.m., the city had nearly run out and stopped allowing people to line up.

“They should have done it earlier,” State Department employee Tina Harris, 36, said as she snaked toward the front of the line in her minivan early Saturday afternoon following a wait of about an hour and a half. “And they should have had bathrooms out here.”

In Delaware, about 600 people were already at shelters in Sussex County. Gov. Jack Markell urged residents to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary. “Find someplace safe to be, get there now, hunker down, and be prepared to be there for a while,” Mr. Markell said.

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