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Storm fuels foreign invasion of Baltimore

When Catalina Constantin got the order to leave Ocean City, she told her mother back in Bucharest, Romania, that she and a friend were leaving the beach town to go sightseeing.

“We know we’re safe but they may not believe us,” Constantin said. “I told her we were going on a trip to Baltimore, but then she found out [about the evacuation on the news]. But we’re safe.”

About 2,100 foreign students spending the summer working at Ocean City restaurants, supermarkets, gift shops and convenience stores waited out Hurricane Irene in shelters around the Baltimore area after a mandatory evacuation order left them with no other choice.

“Those folks don’t really have any place to evacuate to,” said Ian Hines, spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, the agency that coordinated the evacuation.

Word spread to the student workers Thursday through emails and word of mouth. The students, most in their early 20s from countries as far flung as Russia, Slovakia and Vietnam, gathered at Ocean City’s Roland E. Powell Convention Center and boarded buses headed out of town.

Some 600 arrived at Towson University late Thursday night and early Friday morning. Another 400, including Constantin, traveled to the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Jewish Community Center in Owings Mills. And more than 1,000 moved into the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore later Friday.

Most at the JCC seemed to take the evacuation in stride.

Red Cross volunteers handed out bottles of water and packs of playing cards. The evacuees watched movies and soccer games and checked email on laptops, gobbling up all the available space on the center’s wireless network Friday. They swam, played basketball in the gymnasiums ringed with cots and enjoyed the sunshine outside in advance of the storm

“The beach was good, the weather is good,” said Ksenia Ovsyannikova, a Russian education student. “Well, it was good.”

Her friend and classmate, Anna Galib, also of Russia, said the move from Ocean City to Owings Mills went smoothly.

“The organization was very good,” she said. “It was very fast.”

Hines said the agency rehearses its evacuation plan every year. But, it has rarely been put into practice.

The JCC received a state grant to install an emergency generator last year to keep its shelter operations going through a power outage.

Carol Dunsworth, a Towson spokeswoman, said the school has not hosted evacuees in her 15 years there. Towson’s Burdick Hall also serves as overflow space for St. Joseph Medical Center next door.

Hines said the students would stay in the shelters until the state can assess the storm’s impact on Ocean City and ensure they have places to stay when they return. Ocean City Mayor Rich Meehan set a 5 p.m. Friday deadline for the evacuation. To speed the process, city stores stopped selling alcohol the night before.

“I can’t believe they’re going to leave before Monday,” said JCC President Louis “Buddy” Sapolsky. “But that’s just speculation at this stage of the game.”

Dunsworth said Towson agreed to house the students through Wednesday morning at the latest. The school moved back the move-in date for its own students due to the storm. New students were due to arrive Saturday, but are now scheduled to arrive Monday. Returning students are due back Tuesday.

Many of the students at the JCC brought only as much as they could stuff into a backpack, including laptop computers and digital cameras.

“We took all the expensive stuff,” said Patrik Spisak, a Slovakian student, who celebrated his 21st birthday this month at Seacrets, Ocean City’s mega-bar. “Our clothes, it doesn’t matter.”