As a slow-moving superstorm advanced on Maryland on Monday, the region’s transportation systems and infrastructure were paralyzed, well before the worst effects of Hurricane Sandy’s looming collision with an easterly cold front were expected to rain upon the region.
Whether by land, sea or air, transportation operations were abruptly halted in preparation for a storm that forecasters predicted would bring with it far worse damage than last year’s Hurricane Irene, perhaps rivaling Hurricane Gloria in 1985.
President Barack Obama and Gov. Martin O’Malley both declared Maryland to be in a State of Emergency. Several county executives and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake made the same declaration for their jurisdictions.
“This will be unlike any storm we’ve had,” said O’Malley, speaking at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in Reisterstown.
Even before Sandy’s impact was felt inland of Ocean City, where water had already partially destroyed a pier Monday, preparations for the hurricane were causing major disruptions to normal business in Central Maryland.
The Maryland Port Administration decided to close the Port of Baltimore’s public terminals Monday, stopping all cruise ship and cargo vessel traffic to and from the docks. Also, a Tuesday morning ceremony where O’Malley and port officials were to celebrate the use of four new 40-story cranes at the port’s Seagirt Terminal was canceled.
Late last week, port officials began warning companies that have automobiles stored at the port to get those vehicles off the docks, which were expected to flood.
“We advised all of our auto terminal operators to consider moving vehicles off low-lying areas of the port that have flooded in the past,” said Richard Scher, the port’s chief spokesman.
Mercedes-Benz is the largest of those automobile companies. Mercedes imports cars to Baltimore that are ultimately sold from Maine to South Carolina and as far west as Chicago. Company executives did not immediately respond to a message requesting comment.
Sunday, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered a Carnival cruise ship to stay at the port as winds increased and rain began to fall. In a statement on its website, Carnival wrote that it would “not be able to depart the Chesapeake Bay” for an undetermined period of time.
“We respect the Coast Guard’s decision and since we do not know when we will be cleared to sail, we will not be able to operate this cruise,” the statement said. The company said passengers would have their tickets refunded and would receive 25 percent off a future cruise ticket.
Carnival also helped make arrangements for customers who needed hotel accommodations and gave each passenger $30 toward dinner Sunday evening.
A Royal Caribbean International cruise, meanwhile, was able to leave the port Saturday, but rearranged its itinerary to make the trip a cruise to nowhere.
“Enchantment of the Seas [the cruise] will be unable to call on Kings Wharf, Bermuda, as originally scheduled,” a statement on Royal Caribbean’s website said. “Instead, the ship sailed out to sea in an effort to try to find the calmest seas possible.”
Royal Caribbean executives did not respond to an email or phone call requesting comment on the status of the cruise ship.
BWI, mass transit suspend operations
Air travel in the state was almost completely grounded by the coming storm, as operations crawled at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport Monday before coming to a complete stop at 1 p.m. Many flights had been canceled Sunday night, too.
Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at BWI, canceled more than 200 flights to and from the airport on Monday alone, part of some 550 canceled around the country, according to a company statement. The company said flights scheduled for Tuesday and beyond would be dependent upon weather and runway conditions.
On the rails and the roads, mass transportation systems across the region ground to a halt well ahead of the morning commute Monday as the Maryland Transit Administration suspended all operations — including bus, light rail and Metro subway — while MARC and Amtrak train lines also discontinued service.
Intercity bus lines also canceled trips through the Northeast and beyond. Greyhound bus service from Washington to Boston, and west as far as Cleveland, was suspended until further notice as of Sunday night, while BoltBus canceled all of its Monday and Tuesday trips in the region.
In Washington, the Metro was shut down with no timetable for service to resume. The system, the nation’s second-busiest behind New York’s subway, last closed in 2003 due to Tropical Storm Isabel.
CSX Transportation Inc., which hauls freight up and down the East Coast, said its rails were closed from Richmond, Va., to Albany, N.Y., as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Robert Sullivan, a company spokesman, said CSX was expecting up to 72 hours of delay on freight traffic moving through the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.
The closure includes Boston and runs as far west as Brunswick in Western Maryland. Sullivan said customers with CSX rail cars at their facilities should secure those cars on high ground, out of reach of potential flooding.
“With power outages expected across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, generators have been staged, and rock ballast and other materials are positioned to address any infrastructure damage,” Sullivan said.
With all other transportation systems offline, O’Malley said Marylanders should stay off roads themselves for the next 36 hours as the worst of the storm pummeled Maryland from the low-lying Eastern Shore to mountainous Garrett County.
The U.S. 40 Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge closed just after 2 p.m. Monday, and the Bay Bridge also closed around 3 p.m., along with the Millard E. Tydings Bridge on Interstate 95. The Hatem and Tydings bridges connect Harford and Cecil counties. Both the Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge, which joins Charles County with King George County, Va., and the Francis Scott Key Bridge on Interstate 695 were under wind advisories as of about 2 p.m.
By 7 a.m. Monday, the Chesapeake Bay was already beginning to overflow its banks, according to AccuWeather reports.
‘Crosshairs of a very violent storm’
Public schools and universities across the state closed their doors, as did a number of large employers such as T. Rowe Price Group Inc. Legg Mason Inc.’s office in Baltimore was open Monday, but executives told non-essential employees to work from home. State and federal government offices were closed, excepting essential personnel, and Maryland courts from the Eastern Shore to Washington County were closed, too.
Early Monday afternoon, Eastern Shore courts and Baltimore County courts were already planning to close Tuesday, as was state government. O’Malley said early voting would be canceled Tuesday, also.
The storm even forced malls around the Inner Harbor and larger regional shopping centers in Baltimore and Howard counties to shut down Monday. The Gallery closed, as did the General Growth Properties Inc.-owned Towson Town Center in Towson, White Marsh Mall in White Marsh, Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore and The Mall in Columbia. Arundel Mills mall in Hanover also closed Monday, as did the Harford Mall in Bel Air.
“I think what most of us has figured out now is that Maryland is right in the crosshairs of this very, very violent storm,” O’Malley said. “The more responsibly citizens act, the fewer people will die.”
Some areas of the state were expecting more than 12 inches of rain, with sustained winds from Sandy reached speeds greater than 70 miles per hour. At high altitudes in Western Maryland, a cold front from the west was expected to cause snow when it met Sandy.
As of 2 p.m. Monday, almost 25,000 Marylanders were without power, and the utility companies were anticipating they would have company as the day wore on. Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were expected to lose power throughout the state as a result of the superstorm, with numbers multiplying beginning Monday evening.