Gov. James S. Gilmore III declared a state of emergency for all of Virginia yesterday as forecasters warned that Hurricane Floyd could bring high winds, rain, flooding and the possibility of tornadoes tomorrow.
The National Weather Service offered several possible storm paths in forecasts yesterday, but all had severe weather passing through the Washington area tomorrow after cutting a 100-mile-wide swath through Virginia. Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore also could be affected by the fast-moving storm.
The region might begin to feel the early effects of the storm as early as tonight, forecasters said.
If the hurricane remains on its forecast path, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening will issue a warning to the state's coastal residents this morning, said Michael Morrill, Glendening's spokesman.
"He is very concerned about the size and intensity of this storm and urges all Marylanders to watch the forecasts carefully for the next 24 hours," Morrill said.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams warned District residents to prepare for heavy rains tomorrow by watching forecasts, clearing drains and catch basins and protecting personal property.
The storm is likely to lose power as it moves inland from the South Carolina coast, but winds still may be blowing at up to 60 miles per hour, forecasters said. Some areas could see as much as five to 10 inches of rain before the storm moves out of the region Friday.
A hurricane warning, meaning that hurricane conditions could develop in the next 24 hours, was in effect at 11 p.m. from Fort Pierce, Fla., to the North Carolina-Virginia border. A hurricane watch, predicting hurricane conditions after 24 hours, was in effect from the North Carolina border to Chincoteague, Va., including Virginia portions of the Chesapeake Bay. High wind and flood watches were posted for central and eastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia.
Washington area rail commuters are getting an early taste of the storm as Amtrak, Virginia Railway Express and MARC severely curtailed service today because of storm-related staffing problems at the train control center in Jacksonville, Fla.
Virginia officials braced for the worst, putting state police, transportation workers and the Virginia National Guard on alert. Officials urged residents to stock up on food, medicine and water and to bring garbage cans and lawn furniture inside in anticipation of dangerous gusts.
"Recent forecasts predict that Hurricane Floyd could cause damaging high winds, flash flooding and possible tornadoes throughout Virginia," Gilmore said in a statement yesterday before heading to New York City for a conference. "I have declared a State of Emergency so that state resources will be ready to respond anywhere in the Commonwealth if the need arises."
National Weather Service forecasters warned that Floyd is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Fran, which three years ago drove thousands of people in southern and western Virginia from their homes and caused rivers to overflow. Fran hit Danville, then veered to the northwest.
Floyd was expected to accelerate inland after hitting the South Carolina coast and head just east of Richmond by tomorrow. Forecasters then expect it to head northeast, toward Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay. The storm track forecast at 11 p.m. yesterday put the storm's eye close to Annapolis tomorrow evening on a path toward Wilmington, Del. By that time, it will have lost some of its strength from traveling over land and may be downgraded to a tropical storm, forecasters said.
"Virtually all of the mid-Atlantic is going to be affected," said meteorologist Bill Sammler with the National Weather Service office in Wakefield, Va. "This storm is very intense."
Officials and residents throughout the region began to prepare.
In Danville, a city of 51,000 that at one point yesterday was considered the most likely place for Floyd to cross the border from North Carolina, shoppers began to fill grocery stores. The city's Emergency Services Department was gearing up for a hefty storm, and officials said they were "taking this very seriously."
But by late yesterday, the storm track had turned more easterly, increasing the threat to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay.
Meanwhile, Washington area homeowners who just weeks ago contended with water restrictions during a severe drought began preparing for more torrential rain.
Home improvement stores noticed the beginnings of a boom in flashlights, batteries and lumber, though some national chains shipped merchandise to franchises in the southeast.
Contractors heard from hundreds of nervous homeowners who have discovered leaky roofs during recent rainstorms. As Hurricane Floyd approached yesterday, the calls came into roofers at a furious pace, forcing some contractors to turn away customers because of too much work.
The disruption in commuter trains is caused by staffing problems at CSX. The railroad corporation controls its 23,000 miles of track on the East Coast through its operations center in Jacksonville.
"We're anticipating not having enough dispatchers because they're going to be taking care of their own homes," said CSX spokesman Robert Gould. Starting yesterday afternoon, Gould said, operations were slowly shutting down. Freight traffic will continue in the mid-Atlantic, but because of potential signal problems, CSX is stopping all passenger service.
MARC's Penn Line will operate because it runs on tracks owned and operated by Amtrak. But its Camden and Brunswick lines will not run today. For the 5,000 passengers who use those lines, MARC is offering limited bus connections to the Penn Line and to Metro service.
VRE's commuter train operating out of Manassas will run as far as the Van Dorn Metro, where passengers will be escorted to Metro's station and will be able to ride free into Washington, VRE officials said. The Manassas line runs on tracks owned by Norfolk-Southern but runs into CSX tracks as it continues north past Van Dorn.
VRE's Fredericksburg line will not run today. Instead, bus service will be offered from all stations except Brooke, Quantico and Rippon. The buses will drop off in the morning and pick up in the evening at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station. VRE riders can ride Metro free by showing their VRE passes.
Metro has secured 1,000 additional parking spots at the Springfield Mall on levels 2, 4 and 6 and will lift parking restrictions at its Franconia-Springfield station to accommodate 2,000 additional cars, spokeswoman Cheryl Johnson said. The transit system also is adding trains at the Franconia-Springfield, King Street and Van Dorn stations, she said.
VRE riders were miffed. "Here once again we're being completely held under by operations down in Florida," said Keith Angstadt, a daily rider. "It's almost unforgivable for a company the size of CSX not to have a second operations center."
Late last night, 68 members of Montgomery County's urban search and rescue team were preparing to head south in a 14-vehicle convoy to be ready for deployment in the storm area, a county fire and rescue spokesman said. Capt. Dan Gilman said the team, most of them members of the fire and rescue service, had been activated by the federal government and would be sent to an Air Force base outside Macon, Ga., for subsequent assignment wherever needed in the storm-hit area.
Gilman said the team includes physicians, structural engineers and dogs and their handlers, in addition to personnel with a wide variety of search and rescue skills.
Staff writers Steven Gray, Lyndsey Layton, Ann O'Hanlon, Martin Weil and Josh White contributed to this report.