- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

Authorities and residents from Virginia to Delaware were braced yesterday for a ripping storm to hit the region, although Hurricane Charley lost much of its gusto as it churned northward over land along the East Coast throughout the day.

While Southern Virginia and Maryland’s Eastern Shore were expected to be hit with the brunt of the storm last night, the National Weather Service downgraded Charley from hurricane to tropical storm yesterday afternoon.

By early evening, forecasts were toned down. While flood warnings remained in effect, a significantly weaker version of the storm that caused billions of dollars in damages during its riot across Florida on Friday was predicted.

“We were expecting areas east and southeast of the Interstate 95 corridor to be the hardest hit,” said Stephen J. Rogowski, a weather service meteorologist based in Sterling, Va.

Mr. Rogowski said it was expected that winds would reach 15 to 25 mph with some higher gusts of 30 to 35 mph and, in spots, potential gusts of 40 to 50 mph.

He also said the weather service yesterday believed tides would reach 1 to 2 feet above normal, especially where the Chesapeake Bay crosses the tidal Potomac.

But, as steady rain fell on Maryland’s Eastern Shore into the late afternoon, authorities were optimistic they would see less of the storm’s fury than initially expected.

D.C. officials kept an eye on the storm as it approached the city late yesterday afternoon. The D.C. Department of Transportation said it was prepared to dispatch on-duty and on-call crews to respond to everything from downed trees and traffic lights to street washouts and other water damage to roads.

Officials in the District and neighboring counties said workers would continue to clear catch basins through last night. Potomac Electric Power Co. called in extra crews in case of outages.

“Wind, trees in the saturated soil — that could cause some problems,” said Bob Dobkin, Pepco spokesman.

Mr. Dobkin said if there were no major outages when the storm passed, the utility would send crews to Florida, where an estimated 2 million people were without electricity.

The National Weather Service kept a tropical storm warning in place through 4 this morning for the Chesapeake Bay and tidal Potomac River, a region that includes Prince George’s, Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties.

Despite the storm’s impending arrival, some area residents were not panicked by the threat. The usual rush to snap up supplies such as bread, water and batteries was absent, although many area supermarkets in the region were stocked with supplies.

“I didn’t go out and buy a bunch of food and bread or anything like that,” Brenda Brown, 52, said yesterday outside the Shopper’s Food Warehouse on Bladensburg Road, near the D.C. line, in Prince George’s County.

The D.C. resident said she learned her lesson during Hurricane Isabel last September, when prolonged power outages caused much of her food to spoil.

“I remember what happened last year, and we had to throw away a lot of food because it went bad. As far as batteries and toilet paper, I already have things like that at home, so I’m already prepared,” she said.

Early yesterday, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner came out swinging at Charley, issuing a statewide emergency alert and assuring residents that state police and transportation officials — as well as the Virginia National Guard — would have extra staff on standby to respond to the hardest-hit areas.

Counties adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay or the tidal Potomac River were included in a tropical storm warning. Harford, Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, Calvert, Charles, Cecil and St. Mary’s counties were under the warning as was Baltimore City.

On the Eastern Shore, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Caroline counties are included in the warning, and in Delaware, Kent and Sussex counties were warned. Forecasters in Virginia said there was the threat of flooding east of Interstate 95.

Throughout yesterday, forecasters predicted 2 to 4 inches of rain with wind gusts up to 45 mph by tonight. While serious, the predictions were but a shadow of the Category 4 hurricane packing 145-mph winds that slammed into west-central Florida before heading north.

Lower portions of the Eastern Shore were expected to get most of the rain, from 2 to 4 inches, said weather service meteorologist Tim Gingrich. Also, a flood watch was in place for Central Maryland, with emergency officials closely monitoring low-lying areas that already are saturated by rains from recent Tropical Storm Bonnie.

A heavy stream of traffic flowed westward across the Chesapeake Bay bridge yesterday afternoon, as families scrapped weekend beach plans and headed home. In Queen Anne’s County, motorists were at a standstill on Route 50 as they crowded toward the bridge.

Earlier yesterday, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management had urged state residents to prepare for flooding and possible tornadoes. State transportation crews were prepared to close the Midtown Tunnel, which connects Norfolk and Portsmouth, in the event of high winds and downpours.

The tunnel was closed for nearly a month after Hurricane Isabel struck Virginia last Sept. 18 and flooded it with nearly 44 million gallons of water. Some workers nearly drowned as they struggled to close the flood gate.

Still, many Hampton Roads businesses, including hotels and restaurants, were planning to stay open yesterday because they expected the storm to blow over without causing major problems for the region.

Amtrak has canceled eight long-distance trains for the third day in a row, including the Auto Train, which carries passengers and cars between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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