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Storm's Predicted Downpour, Winds Have Officials on Alert

By Michael Laris and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 5, 2008

Virginia declared a state of emergency, Maryland made a "pre-disaster" declaration and District officials worked out the city's storm plan as the region continued preparing for Tropical Storm Hanna, which was forecast to bring strong winds and heavy rain to the area, the first effects of which might be felt later today.

The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood watch covering much of the wider Washington region, from northern Baltimore south to Spotsylvania and St. Mary's counties. Three to four inches of rain could fall within three hours, causing streams and creeks to overflow their banks. The heaviest rain is forecast to come late tonight through tomorrow afternoon, and the downpour could amount to six inches.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) declared a state of emergency yesterday ahead of Hanna's arrival but had not taken the more serious step of calling for evacuations. The emergency declaration puts the Virginia National Guard on standby and allows authorities to buy supplies more quickly if they are needed. Such declarations typically occur several times a year, and sometimes many more, emergency officials said.

Planners say the storm has been difficult to track, making predictions tough and some preparations more complex.

Kaine said widespread evacuations were not deemed necessary but that localities could still decide to issue "pinpoint evacuations" of low-lying areas prone to flooding if conditions call for them.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) made a "pre-disaster" emergency declaration in anticipation of Hanna's impact on the Eastern Shore. Areas affected are Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne's, Caroline, Talbot, Dorchester, Somerset and Wicomico counties as well as Worcester County, which includes Ocean City. The declaration means National Guard troops can be deployed in those areas.

"Right now, our biggest planning blockage is waiting to see what the storm is going to do," said Edward Hopkins, chief of staff for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency. "It's been one of the more fickle storms that I've seen."

Maryland officials said they freed up state resources for storm response more than a week ago as Hurricane Gustav was brewing, holding more than 50 conference calls with meteorologists, public-affairs staff employees, disaster planners, the governor's office and the National Guard.

"We continued after Gustav to work through the week to ramp up for Hanna," Hopkins said. A Maryland team is still in Louisiana providing security at shelters in Livingston Parish.

O'Malley also said that strong winds blowing over the Chesapeake Bay could force the Bay Bridge to be closed at some point tomorrow. Wind gusts from 30 to 40 mph were expected in the state.

Some areas of Maryland, including the Eastern Shore, could be hit with winds as high as 60 mph, according to Bob Smerbeck, senior meteorologist at Accuweather.com. Gusts reaching 70 to 75 mph are possible in southeastern Virginia, he said.

In the District, winds of 20 to 40 mph hour are possible, Smerbeck said.

"If you're out Saturday afternoon, you're going to get bombed with wind and rain," Smerbeck said.

Southeastern Virginia's Hampton Roads area could get the worst of the storm, with possible winds of 40 to 60 mph and tides 2 to 4 feet above normal, Kaine said yesterday afternoon. "Minor to moderate flooding" is also possible there, he added, and such storms can also spin off tornados.

According to forecasts, "it would not be one of the more severe storms we've had," Kaine said. "But we just have to keep assessing the path the storm is on and whether it increases in strength at all."

District officials are also making preparations for the weekend weather, issuing an alert and developing a storm plan.

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