Washington Steels Itself for Hurricane Irene’s Arrival After Earthquake

Washington-area residents who are still collecting themselves after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake are bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Irene tonight and into tomorrow as they stock up on food and water and prepare for extended power outages.

The hurricane, a Category 1 storm with 85-mile-an-hour winds, will be the second blow to the U.S. capital in the past week. The earthquake, centered in neighboring Virginia rattled the region on Aug. 23, damaged tourist destinations such as the Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral.

“We have just had an earthquake and now we have to prepare for the storm,” Merni Fitzgerald, a spokeswoman for Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, who heads the regional response group said. “But we’ve had storms before and people know where the low-lying areas are and what to do.”

Emergency Operations Centers staffed by local authorities are open around the national capital region to coordinate safety and response information, according to Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald said heavy winds and rain were expected to be strongest between 8 p.m. today and 2 a.m. Sunday.

The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning for the Washington area.

North Carolina Landfall

Irene made landfall on the North Carolina coast this morning and is projected to move near or over the mid-Atlantic coast before reaching southern New England tomorrow, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

“We got lots of food for the kids,” said Heather Bruskin, 33, a mother of two who lives in Kensington, Maryland, a suburb of Washington. “Then we just charged everything. We have Pepco, so we’ll probably lose power.”

Pepco, a unit of Pepco Holdings Inc., serves 778,000 customers in Washington and Maryland. In February, U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, asked federal regulators to investigate Pepco for possible failure to comply with national standards for electric reliability before the winter storms.

A late January snowstorm knocked out power for more than 200,000 customers. The Maryland Public Service Commission last year began investigating reliability issues at Pepco.

‘All-Hands Event’

“Restoring power in the wake of Hurricane Irene will be an all-hands event for Pepco,” Thomas H. Graham, region president for the Washington-based company, said in a statement. The utility is preparing for widespread power failures that could last for days, according to a message posted on its website. As of 8 p.m., about 22,000 Pepco customers were without power, the company website said.

District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray declared a state of emergency for the city and ordered homeless shelters to stay open until the storm was over. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell told CNN in an afternoon interview that two people, one a young boy, had been killed in his state by falling trees.

The District of Columbia distributed about 5,000 sandbags at RFK Stadium to residents yesterday until they were gone, according to the city’s website. The city handed out about 6,000 more today before shutting down distribution at 3 p.m. after they ran out of sandbags.

Sandbags in Alexandria

Alexandria, Virginia, about 7 miles southeast of Washington, said it distributed more than 10,000 sandbags in preparation for Irene’s arrival before running out, the city government said in an e-mailed statement. The city’s low elevation and proximity to the Potomac River makes it susceptible to flooding from heavy rains, hurricanes or quick snow melts.

Metro, the Washington area’s transit system, is staying open and planned to maintain a regular weekend schedule, according to its website.

Organizers postponed a planned weekend dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall, a tribute to the civil rights leader on the 48th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The hurricane may cause 5 inches to 15 inches of rain, a storm surge of 4 feet to 8 feet and hurricane-force winds along the East Coast up to New England, U.S. emergency officials said at a news conference today in Washington.

Bay Bridge Closed

The Bay Bridge over the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland’s Eastern Shore was closed after wind gusts reached 80 miles per hour, Washington-area WTOP radio reported.

Amy Oates and her family had to evacuate their house near the coastal town of Ocean City, Maryland.

The 39-year-old mother of two said she and her husband are most concerned about their house and the high level of rainfall forecast. “We’re expecting it to be flooded,” she said. “We removed everything from the floor.”

Waleska Garcia, who was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, said, “I’m not too worried about it because we’re not too close to the coast.”

The 30-year-old mother who lives in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, said she didn’t do much beyond buying extra food and batteries for her second-floor apartment.

“It’s best just to have a little hurricane party, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Garcia said. “I’m making a tropical storm cocktail.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Timothy R. Homan in Washington at thoman1@bloomberg.net; Sara Forden in Washington at sforden@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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