Gov. Martin O’Malley cautioned Maryland residents to still take precautions as Hurricane Irene moved across the state Saturday, saying the worst of the storm has yet to arrive.
“In layman’s terms, we’re starting to feel the first lashes of the storm,” O’Malley said.
More than 36,000 residents were without power as of 5:30 p.m., mostly in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, he said.
The hurricane conditions will be confined mostly to the Eastern Shore, but local areas can still expect 6 to 8 inches of rain, said Howard Silverman of the National Weather Service.
The next six to eight hours are expected to bring the worst of the storm and the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) will be fully activated until at least Sunday night, said Richard Muth, MEMA’s executive director.
“Do not let your guard down. This is still a very serious storm,” he said.
With the worst of Hurricane Irene expected to hit Ocean City near midnight Saturday, O’Malley assured Maryland residents the state is ready for anticipated power outages and flooding.
As the wind howled just outside the MEMA headquarters at Camp Fretterd in Reisterstown, O’Malley said the state had ended its preparation phase.
More than 40 state agencies are now ready to respond to whatever crises Irene brings.
“We do anticipate widespread damage,” said O’Malley, who was joined by Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin during the briefing.
President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Maryland Saturday afternoon, which means the state will have access to federal aid to supplement its own resources to respond to the disaster.
A screen in MEMA’s operation center updating the number of residents without power showed a jump from 12,458 to 16,044 while the governor gave his briefing around 3:30 p.m.
BGE and Pepco have between two to three times more crews on standby than they did before the start of “snowmageddon” in 2010, O’Malley said.
The powerful storm moved over the state early Saturday afternoon. The heaviest rain and winds are anticipated to arrive around midnight, several hours earlier than expected.
While flooding and a storm surge of three to five feet are still expected, Irene will hit her hardest between the high tides, which may mean less destruction to the coastal area, O’Malley said.
“It is a relatively slow-moving storm with a lot of rain,” he said.
Evacuations from Ocean City went smoothly, and the state also issued an evacuation for Calvert County residents who lived within 100 feet of the cliffs, O’Malley said.
Transportation Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley said the light rail will shut down at 6 p.m., and bus service will stop at 9 p.m.
Travel across the Bay Bridge was restricted when winds reached 40 mph, and the state will close the bridge if winds climb to 55 mph, she said.
While BWI-Marshall Airport was not closed, most airlines stopped or limited flights on Saturday, she said.
Sen. Cardin emphasized the importance of the state and federal agencies working together during the worst of the storm and its aftermath.
“These are stressful times for everyone in this state,” Cardin said.
The next press conference will be held at 9:30 p.m. and will be streamed live here.