OCEAN CITY, Md. — Hurricane Irene hit the mid-Atlantic region with deadly force, heavy rain and fierce winds late Saturday evening, hours after President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Maryland. Area officials and residents were bracing for the worst.
A spokesman for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency said that a chimney collapsed on a house in Queen Anne's County, killing a woman.
In the beachfront community of Ocean City, Md., 300 of the city's 7,000 residents chose not to follow evacuation orders and authorities asked them to remain indoors. In Delaware, hundreds were already at shelters. In Washington, hundreds of cars lined up for up to two hours to receive sandbags.
Ocean City police spokesman Mike Levy said that as of early Sunday, power in the resort city on Maryland's coast was sporadic and there was moderate flooding in the areas that normally flood during storms. Still, he said that damage was unknown because police could not go out and assess during the storm.
The storm took aim at the Delmarva peninsula, the largest such land structure on the East Coast. The peninsula has more than 750,000 residents — exceeding the populations of either Baltimore or Washington — and is home to farm families, watermen, retirees, tourism industry workers and people who commute to jobs in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington.
Bridges including the Bay Bridge were closed, roads were flooded and trees fell throughout the area. Officials pleaded with residents to stay off the roads and inside.
Gov. Martin O'Malley said the eye of the storm is about 30 miles wide and should come within 15 to 20 miles of Ocean City.
Officials were anticipating a 3- to 5-foot storm surge.
O'Malley said there were more than 4,000 residents in shelters in the state Saturday afternoon.
Shortly before midnight, more than 400,000 were without power in Maryland.
Earlier in the day, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for the state.
National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said that the upper Chesapeake Bay could escape the kind of storm surge that caused flooding during Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, but the Atlantic coast wasn't expected to be as fortunate. Heavy rains across the region also could cause problems because the ground is saturated from recent downpours.
"We believe that 50 mph winds and saturated grounds will be sufficient to topple a number of trees," said Howard Silverman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Silverman said hurricane conditions "will mostly be confined to the Eastern Shore. Perhaps we could get a few hurricane-strength gusts reaching the western shoreline of St. Mary's County," in southern Maryland. Silverman said the most severe wind conditions would be between 6 p.m. Saturday and 4 a.m. Sunday.
Ocean City officials reported about 5,000 power outages by Saturday night. A flash flood warning was also in effect for the city.
Officials in St. Mary's County said early Sunday that St. Mary's Lake near Callaway could spill over the top of the dam and cause significant flooding, but that the dam is not in danger breaching despite a deluge of rain.
The Potomac River was rising near the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va. The river could rise about 3 to 5 feet above its normal flood stage, Mayor William Euille said. He said that while the flooding was a concern, businesses remained open on Saturday and didn't expect a long-term impact.
In Delaware, about 600 people were already at shelters in Sussex County. Gov. Jack Markell urged residents to stay off the roads unless absolutely necessary. "Find someplace safe to be, get there now, hunker down, and be prepared to be there for a while," Markell said.
Just outside Dagsboro, Del., some 350 people were crowded into a Red Cross shelter at Indian River High School. Emergency medical crews dropped by periodically to check on the evacuees.
"These are very trying times for people, and we have a lot of elderly clients who have some health issues," shelter director Shelly Talmo explained.
In the school gym, hundreds of people huddled on mats and cots, heaped with blankets and pillows, books, magazines, coolers, and whatever else they could bring with them. One family even brought a small TV, but there didn't appear to be a cable signal.
While others read, talked or chatted on cell phones, Pat Van Den Ameele of Oak Orchard was working on a bunny rabbit embroidery, a blanket draped over her shoulders.
"I also have my needlepoint and knitting," said Van Den Ameele, 75.
Meanwhile, in Calvert County, Md., commissioners ordered a mandatory evacuation of homes within 100 feet of the cliffs along the Chesapeake Bay because of the potential for landslides.
State transportation officials closed the Bay Bridge linking the Annapolis area to the Eastern Shore when wind gusts reached 82 mph and suspended transit service Saturday evening.
Baltimore officials were eyeing the possibility that flooding in low-lying areas may be exacerbated by southerly winds coinciding with high tide on Sunday evening.
In Ocean City, roads and parking lots were desolate and rides were closed on the city's boardwalk, including one called "Hurricane." Stores were boarded up, and some owners had written messages on the planks such as "Irene don't be mean!"
Mayor Rick Meehan urged residents to remain inside. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials issued a similar plea, saying many injuries occur when residents venture outside to survey damage.
Chad Smith, 33, was riding out the storm in a hunting lodge on the Chesapeake Bay. He still had power early Sunday, he said, though a hickory tree in the yard had lost some limbs earlier in the evening. He said he was getting ready to get some sleep.
"To the moment it hasn't gotten too bad," he said when reached by phone, adding that it wasn't particularly windy where he was.
He said he took a walk just before dark to "assess if we still had a driveway" and that things hadn't yet gotten bad.
"It hasn't been anything I don't see on a regular basis anyway," he said.
He said he expected the tail end of the storm to be worse because of the direction of the winds.
Associated Press writers Alex Dominguez and Sarah Brumfield in Baltimore, Randall Chase in Georgetown, Del., Eric Tucker in Washington and Brian Witte in Reisterstown, Md., contributed to this report.