PORTLAND – As a weakened Irene churned up the Eastern Seaboard, Mainers braced for what local forecasters predicted would be a “big rainmaker” with damaging wind gusts capable of ripping up trees, downing power lines and wreaking havoc over a wide swath of Maine, from the mountains to the sea.

The storm is expected to cross into western Maine late this afternoon, bringing strong winds, heavy rain and high seas. Moderate flooding is expected throughout the region, with swollen rivers and streams, flash floods and high-tide spillover. High tide in Portland Harbor is at 10:54 a.m. and 11:11 p.m. today.

Maine remains under a tropical storm warning and flood watch. As much as 8 inches of rain may fall across the region, with sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph throughout the day and gusts up to 60 mph. Tropical storm conditions will continue into tonight with waves building to 20 feet. Seas will subside as Irene moves into Canada on Monday.

“The storm is going to ramp up as it moves through during the day,” said Butch Roberts, a National Weather Service hydro-meteorological technician in Gray.

If the storm tracks west, crossing into western Connecticut and Massachusetts at midday today, that bodes well for coastal Maine. The farther west it tracks over land, the quicker its intensity will lessen, Roberts said. “But it’s still a significant problem. It’s a big rainmaker capable of causing a lot of damage.”

Gov. Paul LePage said he expects the storm to affect the entire state. “No one is going to escape the heavy winds and rains,” he said.

LePage said he anticipates “significant power outages,” but added that public and private organizations are prepared for the storm and its aftermath.

“I am very confident that state, federal and local assets have been put on standby and are ready to respond,” he said. “I am, however, urging all Mainers to take precautions now. Do not wait.”

Shelters began opening Saturday afternoon. Anyone can call 211 to find a shelter or other assistance in his or her area.

One woman checked into the American Red Cross shelter at Scarborough High School soon after it opened at 3 p.m., said shelter manager Sharon Collin.

“We’re hoping for early evacuations, so people don’t arrive at once,” Collin said.

The Maine National Guard is ready for whatever comes its way, said John W. Libby, commissioner for the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management. The Guard has never been better trained, because of overseas deployments, he said. Libby anticipates the Guard will be called into service.

The American Red Cross has 150 volunteers to staff shelters, Maine Emergency Management Agency Director Robert McAleer said. State officials also contacted other volunteer organizations, power and telecommunications companies and retailers.

Late Saturday, as Irene continued on its path of destruction along the mid-Atlantic, Mainers maintained a stiff upper lip. Under steamy, sultry skies, festivals across the state went off without a hitch, including an art show in Portland, an air show in Brunswick and a folk festival in Bangor. But all canceled plans for today.

While lobstermen in Phippsburg hauled traps to remove them from harm’s way, surfers by the dozen spilled into the water at Higgins Beach in Scarborough. More than two dozens surfers were there late Saturday afternoon, riding waves of about 5 feet that were expected to grow in size and ferocity by nightfall and into today. “(Sunday) morning should be good,” said Jim Duchesne of Falmouth, as he prepared to enter the water. “As the day progresses, it will get a little dicier, a little more interesting.”

Otherwise there was little evidence of storm alarm at Higgins. Residents removed lawn furniture and flags, but mostly went about their business.

Farther south, in Kennebunkport, former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, remained at their summer home. A spokesman for the Bushes said they would move inland if the weather becomes too rough at Walker’s Point.

Mainers appeared ready. In Portland, D batteries were in short supply at big box retailers and local hardware stores. Similarly, the sump pump shelves were empty, and grocery stores in coastal communities struggled to keep drinking water and other emergency supplies in stock.

Highways were jammed with cars heading south, as vacationers fled the state in advance of the storm. Their commute hit a snag late Saturday afternoon. A three-car accident at mile 23 southbound on the Maine Turnpike snarled traffic for several miles. The accident was reported at 4:10 p.m., with minor injuries.

The city of Portland opened a hurricane shelter Saturday night at the Portland Expo for people seeking protection. Evacuees will receive basic necessities, and pets will be allowed. At the Scarborough shelter, a team of volunteers also was prepared to accommodate pets.

Officials reminded residents not to forget to bring prescription medications.

Because the hurricane has weakened and is expected to cross over Maine today as a tropical storm, officials held off Saturday from ordering evacuations of low-lying areas or the outer islands.

Still, they said Irene’s high winds and the potential for flooding pose serious threats.

“I advise all residents to treat (the storm) as seriously as we are,” Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones said at a news conference Saturday morning. He suggested residents secure outside furniture, shut windows, stock up on enough food and water to last three days and avoid downed power lines.

“This is a dangerous storm. It has the potential to do some real damage,” said Dave Thompson, CEO of the American Red Cross in Maine. Thompson said he expects the storm will knock down trees and leave many Mainers without electricity.

The Red Cross has set up shelters in six towns in Maine and has scores of volunteers, including trained mental health workers, on standby to help storm victims.

Some residents have heeded officials’ recommendations.

“We are probably over-prepared for the hurricane,” said Jamie Rice, who was pushing her 2-month-old son in a stroller up Temple Street in Portland on Saturday. “It’s probably going to be like a winter storm, but without the snow.”

Despite the coming storm, Commercial Street in Portland hummed with tourist activity Saturday. Meanwhile, workers in the Old Port made final storm preparations.

“This is the safest berth in Portland,” said lobsterman Skip Werner, while securing his 40-foot lobster boat Foxie Lady to a dock on Union Wharf on Saturday.

With a few extra lines, Werner thinks his boat will weather the storm without a problem. If conditions get too bad today, he plans to cast off his lines and ride out the storm in Casco Bay.

At nearby Chandlers Wharf, a condominium complex with a 76-slip marina, manager Shawn Nielsen described preparations as “business as usual.”

He said his staff cleared decks of furniture and moved boats off docks that face Casco Bay.

“I’ve been here 12 years and we see this quite often,” said Nielsen. “The width and breadth of the storm is huge, but we’ve seen smaller storms that are much more of a surprise.”

Staff at LaRoux Kitchen on Commercial Street, which will be open today, moved valuable products away from the windows and cleared merchandise from the floor of the basement, which is prone to flooding, said manager Suzie Rephan.

J’s Oyster on the Portland Pier will also be open despite the storm, and bartender Melanie Bulduc expects to be busy.

“It’s the best place in town to watch the storm,” she said.

Most airlines have canceled flight operations at the Portland International Jetport until around 9 a.m. Monday, said Jetport Director Paul Bradbury.

Officials said vehicle ferry service to the Casco Bay Islands may be canceled today, and the Downeaster passenger rail service canceled train service. Railroad officials said they’ll monitor the storm and check for damage to tracks before deciding whether to resume service Monday.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Scott Monroe, Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

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Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or:

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