BREAKING NEWS: Resort Orders Mandatory Evacuation

OCEAN CITY — Hurricane Irene, called an “extraordinary threat” by the National Weather Service, continues along a path that could take it directly over Ocean City and the lower Eastern Shore late Saturday and into Sunday, forcing a mandatory evacuation of the resort starting tonight.

Earlier this afternoon, Ocean City Emergency Management officials announced Phase 3 of the town’s hurricane action plan will go into effect at midnight tonight. All persons other than identified emergency personnel are ordered to evacuate. Visitors are asked to return to their principle residences, while Ocean City residents are asked to seek shelter elsewhere.

In addition, utilizing the authority under a local state of emergency, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan has banned the sale of all alcohol in Ocean City after midnight tonight and requested all businesses close at midnight last night. Once Phase 3 goes into effect at midnight, all incoming traffic to Ocean City will be limited to emergency personnel only. No other vehicles are permitted entry to the island except those approved by the town’s authority, either from the mayor, the city manager or the emergency services director.

On Thursday morning, the town of Ocean City implemented Phase I of its hurricane evacuation plan, including the mandatory evacuation of all summer work-travel J-1 visa holders. The foreign students were ordered to report to the Convention Center at 10 a.m. yesterday, from which they would be transported first to Salisbury and eventually to Baltimore. Also as part of Phase 1 of the hurricane evacuation plan, the town urge all visitors planning on traveling to the resort this weekend to cancel their plans as of yesterday morning.

Also on Thursday, Assateague officials announced a phased closure of the national seashore was set to get underway. The evacuation will begin with the closure of the off-road vehicle route at 10 p.m.tonight and all campers on the island were required to leave the park by noon Friday. The North Beach day-use area will remain open until 7 p.m. Friday night, at which time the entire Assateague National Seashore will be closed to the public. Assateague is scheduled to be closed through at least Monday morning.

All eyes were on Hurricane Irene this week as the massive storm churned through the Caribbean and across the Bahamas by mid-week on its way to the East Coast. As of late yesterday, Irene was a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds over 120 miles per hour. By the time it reaches Delmarva late Saturday and into Sunday, it is expected to lose a little steam and could be downgraded to a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph, which is still considerably stronger and larger than any hurricane to approach the resort area in the last few decades.

According to the National Weather Service, the most important element over the next day or so is the storm’s track. Earlier in the week, it appeared Irene would take an easterly track after glancing off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a scenario that has played out for years with tropical storms off the east coast. Savvy, storm-tested local residents for years have watched closely as storm after storm followed a similar track along the Atlantic Coast, but officials are concerned Irene might break the long-established mold.

As of this afternoon, the projected track for Irene had the storm hugging the Atlantic Coast across North Caroline and into coastal Virginia and Maryland before proceeding on a course toward the New York and New England coasts. Late yesterday, the entire east coast was under the “extreme” threat level, a new category added by the National Weather Service just this week in advance of Irene, while the “high” threat level extended hundreds of miles inland.

The National Weather Service projects possible storm tracks from a variety of sources and with a typical storm, the predictions are as varied as the number of sources. However, the projected tracks for Irene are practically stacked on top of each other with very little variance.

“It’s interesting to see just how tight the predicted tracks are for this storm,” said Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the predicted tracks stacked so tightly together in the past. It doesn’t seem like there is any other weather system steering it away from us.”

The National Weather Service is predicting maximum winds of around 100 mph as Irene crosses the mid-Atlantic region with storm surges as high as 6-8 feet above normal high tide. In addition, waves topping out at as high as 20 feet could be produced by the storm. Rainfall totals in double digits are also possible as the storm traverses the resort area. All of the predictions, of course, are based on the storm’s eventual track over the area.

Earlier this afternoon, Gov. Martin O’Malley officially declared a state of emergency in Maryland, activating the phase I of the state’s emergency preparedness plan and mobilizing the state’s National Guard. In the declaration, O’Malley specifically referenced the Ocean City area.

“There is a need to take protective actions to protect the lives and property of impacted citizens, especially in and around Ocean City and the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, from the potentially disastrous effects of Hurricane Irene,” the governor’s order reads.

Those protective actions were well underway on Thursday in Ocean City. By midday, Public Works crews had closed the openings in the seawall along the Boardwalk and had removed the wooden walkways providing access to the beach. Also removed were all trashcans and recycling cans from the beach, boardwalk and the town’s streets. Public Works crews had erected “high water” signage in downtown area prone to flooding in even modest storms, and signage was being prepared to re-route traffic in Ocean City should some roads become impassible.

Town crews yesterday were also making sure Ocean City’s emergency generators were fueled, along with the city’s emergency vehicles. Delmarva Power issued statements yesterday some power outages are expected and could be prolonged, depending on the magnitude of the storm.

According to a release from Ocean City late yesterday, easterly gale-force winds are expected to arrive in the resort area around 5 p.m. on Saturday with hurricane-force winds arriving around 4 a.m. on Sunday and lasting for a period of eight hours or more. The highest wind speeds are expected to occur around 9 a.m. on Sunday with top sustained winds around 90 mph and gusts as high as 120 mph.

Hurricane Irene preparations were going on all over the Eastern Shore and across Maryland late yesterday, although Ocean City and Assateague were the only jurisdictions to officially order mandatory evacuations. However, Salisbury University announced it was officially closing as of 5 p.m. on Friday, disrupting the planned move-in of freshmen students today.

With mandatory evacuations now in place, it remains uncertain if Ocean City hotels and motels were offering refunds to guests who had booked the weekend in advance. Before the evacuation was mandated yesterday, many did not appear willing to refund the room rates.

As of late yesterday, neighboring resorts in Delaware had not made evacuations mandatory although the orders will likely be made Friday if they haven’t been already.

“Have a plan, get a kit and stay informed,” said Delaware Emergency Management Agency Director Jamie Turner. “We want everyone to have food and water for at least three days, batteries for lights and radios and a means of charging cell phones.”

Senator Barbara Mikulski released a statement urging Marylanders in coastal areas to be prepared, ending with a rather ominous statement.

“Irene is already a big and dangerous storm and I am monitoring its path and possible impact on Maryland and other coastal states,” she said. “As Irene approaches, my prayers are with those in her direct path.”