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Floodwaters reach mid-Atlantic ahead of Sandy

OCEAN CITY — Floodwaters inundated seaboard communities in Maryland and Delaware as Hurricane Sandy raced nearer to the mid-Atlantic coast, and residents feared the worst was yet to come as the huge, violent storm was expected to park itself over the region.

Ocean City pier

Part of the Ocean City Fishing Pier is missing, and the fence dangles in the water, as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the East Coast on Monday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

By Monday afternoon, parts of Ocean City in Maryland and Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach in Delaware — three of the region’s most popular coastal destinations — were under water. Officials were predicting that Sandy would cause damage equal to or greater than two of the worst tropical storms in the region’s history: Gloria in 1985 and Agnes in 1972.

Officials implored residents to stay off the roads while imposing evacuation orders that affected thousands of residents in low-lying coastal communities, primarily in Delaware. The storm was expected to make landfall Monday evening in Delaware or south New Jersey.

In Washington, the federal and local governments closed along with the courts, public schools and the Metro system that serves about 1.2 million weekday customers. Most flights in and out of the three airports serving the region were canceled Monday, and widespread cancellations were expected Tuesday. Tourist attractions such as the Smithsonian museums were off-limits, and shelters opened to help hundreds.

Carrying sustained winds of up to 90 mph, Sandy sped toward a landfall that would impact Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Utilities warned power outages could affect millions and last for a week as the vast storm system meets a wintry storm and cold Arctic air. As of 6 p.m. Monday, with wind gusts strengthening in the region, there were nearly 200,000 power outages in Delaware, Maryland, northern Virginia and the District of Columbia, utilities reported.

No part of the region appeared safe from Sandy’s impact. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said his state was “right in the crosshairs” of the storm and urged people to stay off the roads at least until Tuesday night. Flooding was likely in communities along the Chesapeake Bay, he said.

“The days ahead are going to be very difficult,” O’Malley said. “There will be people who die and are killed in this storm.”

The Bay Bridge, which links Maryland’s Eastern Shore with the rest of the state, was closed Monday afternoon because of high winds. Federal offices in the Washington area were to remain closed Tuesday, along with school systems and local governments.

In mountainous western Maryland, a blizzard warning was issued for sections of Garrett County for Monday night into Tuesday morning. State police in Garrett declared a snow emergency Monday afternoon.

In Washington, the Potomac River was expected to start flooding Tuesday night, cresting at 11.5 feet above normal early Thursday morning, the National Weather Service reported.

With the storm still far off, parts of coastal towns in southern Delaware already were under water by midday Monday. Wind-driven high tides swamped streets in Lewes east of the Lewes-Rehoboth canal, and police blocked off a bridge over the canal. The wind and water toppled light poles near the Lightship Overfalls, a National Historic Landmark.

Farther south in Dewey Beach, water from Rehoboth Bay inundated streets on the west side of Route 1, the major coastal highway, and crept up onto the highway itself. Authorities blocked off Route 1 at southern the edge of town because of dune breaches farther south near the Indian River Inlet bridge, which also was closed.

“We really have not seen, ourselves, the brunt of this yet,” Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said Monday afternoon. “It’s going to get worse and worse.”

The stormy Atlantic Ocean covered the beach in Ocean City, where a pier was battered and badly damaged. Tracy Lind, a front desk worker at a Holiday Inn & Suites, said the pier was part of the fabric of the resort town, frequented by fishermen and visited by tourists and locals seeking a close-up look at the ocean.

“It’s kind of like an icon in Ocean City. It’s the closest people can get to the ocean without getting in,” Lind said. “I always thought that it would withstand anything.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said there was significant flooding in a downtown area where officials had ordered a mandatory evacuation. About 200 people were staying in the evacuated area.

The high water and extent of the flooding surprised some. Ron Croker, the owner of Waterways Marina, was out in the rain Monday afternoon moving jet skis from a parking lot on Coastal Highway. Croker said he was surprised how high the water rose.

“It’s never been this high,” Croker said of the water. “Pretty amazing.”

‘Where else am I going to low?’

On Monday afternoon, the Ocean City boardwalk was deserted, and shops that normally sell hot dogs and lemonade, T-shirts and souvenirs were closed. An amusement park at the end of the boardwalk was locked. The only thing moving was the Ferris wheel, which had been stripped of its cars and was slowly turning in the wind.

In Delaware, Markell ordered the evacuation of about 50,000 people in coastal communities. Thousands more were evacuated in parts of Wilmington, the state’s largest city, and Delaware City, a working-class community that’s home to a massive oil refinery.

William Warren, a 76-year-old retired general laborer, said he wasn’t planning to leave.

“Where else am I going to go?” Warren said Monday morning, sitting in his car outside the mobile home where he rents a room.

At high tide around midday Monday, dark gray waves rolled and crashed along Delaware City’s 10-foot seawall, occasionally spraying over the top. The tide was near the city’s 8.5-foot record. The next high tide, overnight, was forecast to surpass it.

Delaware City Police Chief Dan Tjaden said it’s been hard persuading many of the approximately 700 people in the evacuation zone that there’s a threat because Hurricane Irene did only modest damage in the area last year. He said authorities have marked the doors of those who refused to evacuate by stretching bright yellow police tape across their front door frames.

“If they need us, they call us,” Tjaden said. “I give them my cellphone number, they give me their cellphone numbers and we just go from there and we hope for the best.”

On Fenwick Island, bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and by Assawoman Bay on the other, Mayor Audrey Serio said she woke up with six inches of water on the ground floor of her home. Neighbors’ homes were also flooded. Al Daisey stood outside his home, warily observing the bay, normally at the end of his street, creeping several feet into his yard.

In the Washington area, winds started picking up Monday afternoon, and snowflakes could be seen mixed in with the raindrops falling downtown. Fire departments began responding to trees falling on homes, although no injuries were reported.

Although Arlington National Cemetery was closed to tourists, the Army’s Third U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as The Old Guard, continued to stand guard over the Tomb of the Unknowns. Soldiers in combat uniforms were guarding the tomb from a small enclosure covered by a green awning about 20 feet away, said Maj. John Miller, a spokesman for the regiment.

The Metro transit system in Washington closed for the first time since Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Officials weren’t expected to decide on restoring service until Monday evening and first needed assurances from utility companies that they would be able to maintain electricity.

With relatively light winds in Washington Monday morning, some were having fun with the storm. A shirtless man wearing a horse’s-head mask was shown on WRC-TV cameras jogging, an image that quickly went viral.