District workers stacked sandbags. Public schools announced closings. The Navy sailed its ships out to sea. And the Orioles said there would be no baseball in Baltimore.

All across Maryland, Washington and Virginia -- at every level of government and in every walk of life -- people prepared for the rainy, windy, awful weather expected to blow through today as Hurricane Floyd speeds north.

The Maryland and Virginia governors declared states of emergency, putting state police, National Guard and other essential employees on alert, and urged evacuations in low-lying and coastal areas. A stream of motorists stretched miles on interstate highways heading away from the Virginia coast.

The District and Virginia governments let many of their workers take today off. All state offices in Northern Virginia are closed today. Many local governments planned to either close or let employees leave early. Most schools in the Washington region closed in anticipation of dangerous winds and rains.

Office of Personnel Management Director Janice R. Lachance said she will make a decision by 5 a.m. today on whether the federal government will close. She urged federal employees to listen for news reports this morning or call 202-606-1800 for information.

Rainfall of two to four inches and wind gusts of 40 miles per hour were forecast for the Washington area. Forecasters say flooding will be the greatest danger from Floyd as its winds slacken but rains stay strong enough to swell rivers and wash over roads.

"Snow is just stuff falling on the ground, but with a hurricane, you have stuff flying through the air and trees falling on you," said Elizabeth Fields, of Fort Washington, whose grandson attends Oxon Hill Middle School. "I would rather have my child safe at home rather than trying to get home in the middle of it."

In the District, about 15 city water and sewer crews spent yesterday cleaning catch basins and storm drains to remove debris to try to prevent flooding in low-lying areas such as 16th and Spring streets NW and 14th Street and Luzon Avenue NW. Other crews stacked sandbags. Even with this work, city officials acknowledge that if there is a deluge of rain, there could be flash flooding.

D.C. police were ordered to work 12-hour shifts, and nonessential city government workers were urged to take the day off today.

The forecast led the Orioles to take the unusual step of postponing the games scheduled for last night and today at Camden Yards.

Government officials urged residents throughout the region to stock up on food, water, medicine, flashlights and other essentials.

Grocery and home supply stores reported a surge of shoppers. At the Giant Food store in Fairfax City, the shelves were stripped bare of batteries by early evening and, a few aisles over, there was only a single one-gallon jug of water remaining. Company officials reported that basics such as milk and bread were selling briskly, much as they do before a snowstorm.

Joan Clark, a Virginia state legislative aide, shopped yesterday in preparation for a hurricane sleepover party at her house that was planned by her daughters, Stephanie, 15, and Ali, 12.

"We're going to party, and I got some food to stock up. They were out of batteries, but I got some water and dog food," she said.

The occasionally festive mood in the Washington area was missing in the areas closer to the center of the storm, which forecasters predict will move through eastern Virginia and up the Chesapeake Bay.

In Virginia, Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) authorized mandatory evacuations in the most flood-prone sections of Hampton Roads and coastal counties. Several dozen shelters opened.

Gilmore, who cut short a trip to New York and returned to Richmond last night, said Virginia would deploy more than 700 state police troopers, most working 12-hour shifts, and would marshal National Guard earthmovers, medical companies and helicopter units from southwestern and central Virginia for use on the Eastern Shore.

"We have taken all steps to be prepared," the governor said. But he added, "Do not underestimate this hurricane's full reach, power and potential to do harm."

More than 80 submarines, surface ships and aircraft carriers -- all the ships docked at Norfolk Naval Base -- left port yesterday to ride out the storm about 400 miles from shore. Ships are safer at sea during storms than tied to piers, where they can smash into moorings and against other ships, the Navy said.

Emergency management officials in Hampton Roads and along the Chesapeake Bay began urging the evacuation of low-lying and flood-prone areas but stopped short of ordering the evacuation of entire communities. Deep pools of standing water closed some roadways in Norfolk yesterday.

By late afternoon, cars and U-hauls were backed up -- and in some places had come to a standstill -- on a six-mile stretch of Interstate 95 north of Richmond and on Interstate 64 west of Hampton.

Worried that the eye of Hurricane Floyd could pass within miles of its shorefront communities, officials in Virginia Beach last night ordered the mandatory evacuation of the Sandbridge area, for the first time ever asking residents to pick up and move out of a storm's projected path.

There were localized, forced evacuations in Chesapeake and Portsmouth and Accomack and Gloucester counties last night. Evacuation also was ordered for Tangier Island, population about 700, a fishing village in the Chesapeake Bay.

At 1 a.m., a hurricane warning was in effect from north of Edisto Beach, S.C., to Cape Henlopen, Del., on the Atlantic shore and in the Chesapeake Bay south of Smith Point at the mouth of the Potomac River. Tropical storm warnings were in effect from north of Cape Henlopen to Plymouth, Mass. Tropical storm warnings also applied to the Washington region except for Howard, Montgomery and Loudoun counties.

The entire Washington region was under a flash flood watch.

The Hampton Roads region was expected to get 10 to 15 inches of rain. Winds in that area may be as high as 80 mph -- hurricane force. Fears along the Eastern Shore focused on storm surges that could be high enough to swamp coastal communities already deluged with rain.

"We're expecting a seven-foot surge. If that happens, a large part of my county will be underwater," said Wayne Robinson, of the Dorchester County emergency management agency on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "We've just asked for voluntary evacuations, but a lot of the old people, many of them won't leave."

Barbara Maniglia, general manager of the Comfort Inn in Kent Narrows, Md., said hotel employees spent yesterday bringing in umbrellas, furniture and tables from outdoors. "We're very scared. We're taking it very seriously," she said.

Maryland officials steadily escalated their call for voluntary evacuations, asking residents along the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast to find higher ground.

"Those who live along the waterfront in coastal regions and in low-lying or flood-prone areas should be making plans for evacuation if the storm continues to maintain its current course and intensity," Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) said in a statement.

Residents who wanted to leave were being evacuated last night from Smith, James, Deale and Tilghman islands in the Chesapeake Bay and from low-lying areas of Talbot County on the Eastern Shore.

Meanwhile, Maryland counties near the District made their own preparations. Extra police, road crews and dispatchers will be on duty for most of today. Montgomery will outfit emergency crews with chain saws in preparation for fallen trees. If phone service fails, police officers will be sent to neighborhood fire stations to put them within walking distance of many homes.

Staff writers Hannah Allam, Amy Argetsinger, Stephen Barr, Dan Eggen, Maria Glod, Steven Gray, Allan Lengel, Jennifer Lenhart, Eric Lipton, Jessie Mangaliman, R.H. Melton, Ann O'Hanlon, Linda Perlstein, Brigid Schulte, Michael D. Shear, Todd Shields, Steve Vogel, Josh White, Craig Whitlock and Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

Bracing for Floyd

As Hurricane Floyd bears down today, the region prepares for high winds, heavy rainfall and possible flash flooding. What to do during the hurricane:

Before the storm

Bring in garbage cans, lawn furniture or other items that could be blown around by high winds.

Prepare for power outages by stocking up on flashlights, batteries, nonperishable food items, water, prescription medicine.

If you live in low-lying areas prone to flooding, be prepared to evacuate quickly to high ground.

If you are told to evacuate, do so immediately.

During the storm

If you are not advised to evacuate, remain indoors, away from windows. If necessary, seek refuge in an interior, windowless room. Use a mattress to protect you from falling debris.

After the storm

Listen to radio stations for official disaster relief information and instructions.

Be prepared to be temporarily without power, telephone or any outside services.

Watch out for downed power lines, weakened structures, rodents, snakes, and avoid puddles of standing water.

Be extra careful when handling gas lanterns, generators and matches.

Avoid using candles as a light source.

SOURCES: National Climatic Data Center, National Weather Service, Virginia Department of Emergency Services