Two severe storms that began thrashing Florida yesterday could dump as much as seven inches of rain on the Washington region by tomorrow, a forecast that has prompted the National Weather Service to place the region under a flood watch.
Storms accompanying Tropical Storm Bonnie were expected to arrive early today, and the remnants of Hurricane Charley should follow tomorrow, according to meteorologists.
"There might be a tiny break between the two systems," said Jackie Hale, a spokeswoman for the Weather Service's Baltimore-Washington office in Sterling. "But not a big one."
The Weather Service issued a flood watch yesterday, in part because the soil in many areas is saturated from recent rains. The alert was raised to a flash flood warning in the District and Alexandria, along with Prince George's and Arlington counties; that warning was expected to expire early today. But as of late last night, the storm had caused far more inconvenience than damage.
The flood watch across the region is likely to last until noon today, forecasters said. Utility companies, local governments and transportation providers have advised residents to be prepared for power outages and commuter delays if the storms follow their expected courses.
Hale said Bonnie could dump two to three inches of rain on the region between 3 a.m. and noon today. Winds of 10 to 20 mph with gusts of 30 mph are predicted, and tides could rise to two to three feet above normal.
Charley is expected to bring as much as two to four additional inches of rain tomorrow. Winds of 15 to 25 mph and gusts of 40 mph are also possible, Hale said, and tides could be two to four feet above normal.
The storms also could spawn isolated thunderstorms and increase the risk of tornadoes, Hale said. But because both are forecast to reach the region via a land route, the threat is much less severe than similar storms -- such as last year's Hurricane Isabel -- that gather force over water before hitting the region.
"As these things get on land, they have a tendency to lose punch," she said.
Anticipating power outages, Pepco and Dominion Virginia Power arranged mutual aid agreements with out-of-state crews. As of late last night, storm-related outages were few, totaling several hundred.
A spokesman for Pepco said the company has been drilling employees in recent weeks to prepare for hurricane season. The company was criticized for its performance during Hurricane Isabel last year, when about 500,000 of its customers lost power, some for as long as 10 days.
"There is no question we anticipate a lot of rain, but rain in itself is not likely to cause many problems," said Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin. "The big factor will be winds: With saturated grounds, trees can topple."
Metro workers will be watching closely for flooding, trying to avoid problems that occurred this month, when flood damage knocked out electronic equipment in a subbasement control room in Silver Spring and hobbled the Red Line for more than a week. Workers have been inspecting catch basins and vent shafts across the 103-mile rail system, said spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein, and they also are monitoring drainage pumps to watch for any flooding caused by the storms.
Transit officials have stocked emergency trailers with portable generators, pumps and other equipment that can be driven to stations in need, she said. Sandbags are standing by at Metro's rail yards, so they can be dispatched quickly to sections of the rail line that need help.
Additional work crews will be on call throughout the weekend, Farbstein said. For information about Metro, call 202-637-7000 or check Metro's Web site, www.metroopensdoors.com.
Virginia Railway Express officials said they would decide about 4 a.m. today whether to operate trains at low speeds this morning. Such a move could cause delays of up to 90 minutes in some cases. For updates, riders can check the VRE Web site, www.vre.org, or call 800-RIDE-VRE.
Amtrak temporarily canceled eight trains yesterday and today that travel long-distance routes between New York and Miami. Among the sidelined trains was the Auto Train that operates between Lorton and Sanford, Fla. Northeast Corridor service linking Boston, New York, Washington and Newport News was unaffected.
Decisions about train operation for tomorrow will be made this afternoon, Amtrak spokeswoman Marcie Golgoski said. Updates can be found on Amtrak's Web site, www.amtrak.com, or by calling its toll-free information and reservations number, 800-USA-RAIL.
Last night, a driving rain slowed the evening rush to a crawl, police said. Authorities reported dozens of minor fender-benders and instances of cars sliding off roadways. Flooding forced the closure of two lanes of northbound Interstate 95 on the Maryland side of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge early in the evening, delaying traffic for up to two hours and causing backups from the bridge to the I-95 Mixing Bowl.
Earlier, crews from local jurisdictions cleared drainage areas and put staff on standby in case of storm-related problems. The Virginia Department of Transportation dispatched 150 maintenance crew workers to 18 known trouble spots to clear debris that might contribute to flooding, spokesman Ryan Hall said.
John Erzen, a spokesman for Prince George's County, said workers would be on call to deal with flooded roads, if necessary. District and Montgomery County officials advised residents to clear debris from home drains and to check gutters and downspouts.
"Obviously, we could have a problem, because with so much previous rainfall, many parts of the state are saturated and the water has no place to go," said Quentin Banks of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.
Staff writers Tim Craig, Lyndsey Layton, Allan Lengel, Sarah Park, Ovetta Wiggins and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.