Mike Hall is surrounded by chaos.

The immediate crisis is water -- there isn't enough of it.

But that's only a hint of the drama that has been playing out almost daily at the Costco bulk sales store in Beltsville.

Frantic shoppers, spurred by governmental gloom about possible terrorist attacks and the prediction for last weekend's massive snowfall, last week clogged the store on Route 1 just north of the Capital Beltway. Until the snow hit, they had been there day and night.

The scenario was much the same in Howard County and elsewhere. Christian Green, manager of the Target store in Ellicott City, said that Target had to request an additional shipment of bottled water from a local supplier just to keep up with demand.

In addition, he said, his store was awaiting a shipment of duct tape and flashlights after selling out last week. The store closed early Saturday and didn't open again until 1 p.m. for just four hours. By Tuesday, he said, customers were back, searching for duct tape, plastic sheeting and bottled water.

With customers preparing for the unknown, sales have been way up, about six times the norm, Hall said.

One evening last week, as Code Orange anxiety was high and the big weekend storm loomed, Hall surveyed his store, almost three football fields long. It was clogged with customers who stood in line about 40 minutes before clearing checkout.

"Look at this. Almost every cart has water in it," Hall said.

Then he got a call on his walkie-talkie. "Mike, we are out of water," the stock clerk told him.

Usually, an 18-wheeler will deliver 1,120 cases of water and the supply will last at least two days at Costco. But last week, the store went through six truckloads in two days.

Hall grimaced. Then he ran upstairs to his office and pounded out an e-mail to regional headquarters in Sterling, begging for more water. Then he picked up the phone and made the same plea.

It's been like that for several days as area residents stockpile the three-day supply of food, water, toilet paper and other provisions recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Hall hasn't seen a letup.

Usually, the 36-year-old Hall works from about 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., managing his 250 employees. But last week, he left his Laurel home at sunrise and found himself getting home to his wife and two children well after 8.

People such as Hall and stores like Costco last week quickly became the front lines of homeland defense, the go-to guys when Tom Ridge says stock up.

"My boss gave me this list," said one Beltsville resident who works for an Arlington County defense contractor and didn't want to reveal his name. His piece of paper was labeled "Survival List."

Cases of water, cases of tuna, Gatorade, crackers, vegetables, flashlights.

He paused at one item -- "One bag of hard candy."

"There have been a lot of people buying hard candy along with other items," Hall noted.

Hyattsville residents William Mendoza, Eduard Mendoza and Julio Cristobal filled up two shopping carts with cases of water. Each said he was simply trying to provide for his family. "Everything that is going on, you just can't be too prepared," William Mendoza said.

Anita Byrd, a resident of Northwest Washington, also came to Costco to buy water and other items for a possible emergency. "This reminds me of when I was a child and it was during World War II. I am just getting some extra water because of my daughter. She is more concerned than I am."

A Prince George's County schoolteacher, who only wanted to be referred to as Carolyn, said she had no plans to buy plastic and duct tape, but food was different. "I just want to be on the safe side. You just never know. It is better to be safe than sorry," she said.

Meanwhile, Hall said his biggest challenge is finding enough people to man the cash registers and replenish the shelves.

Then he turned his attention to the roar outside.

Another 18-wheeler had pulled in, filled with water.

Staff writer Sabrina Jones contributed to this report.

Julio Cristobal and William Mendoza of Hyattsville wait Friday at the Costco store in Beltsville to buy a cartload of supplies, including cases of water.