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Rallying cry for hurricane Irene preparations: not Katrina, not again

Federal and state emergency managers are acting decisively in an attempt to avoid the mistakes of hurricane Katrina in 2005. The result has impacted millions of lives.

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After a dismal record coping with hurricane Isabel – when some 6 million people lost power, many for more than a week – power companies say they’re better prepared for Irene. Crews have been working for months to upgrade equipment, trim trees, and overall harden the reliability of the Pepco power system, which runs from the Washington area into New Jersey. When 150 employees of First Energy in Ohio found they weren’t needed in Florida to help cope with Irene, Pepco tapped them to help with the emergency response in the Washington area.

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“Despite the skepticism, we believe we’re going to get the job done,” says Bob Hainey, a spokesman for Pepco. But despite all the reliability upgrades, “with 70-mile winds, the trees will not just sway but come down on poles and wires,” he adds.

By midday on Friday, Pepco had sent robocalls to customers to prepare for “potential and likely widespread power outages” this weekend. “Due to the magnitude of the storm, the company expects the restoration effort to extend over multiple days,” Pepco warned.

Irene also poses a formidable threat to the region’s vast boating community from commercial ports up and down the coast to the army of recreational boaters that typically heads out on the water for the last days of summer.

For the US Coast Guard, it’s the most significant challenge since hurricane Isabel. Coast Guard C-130 cargo planes are acting as flying radio stations, broadcasting warning notices on marine-band channels for mariners to take “appropriate action” to avoid the damage from the storm. For recreational boaters, that means getting their boats on trailers and inland to avoid high winds and flying debris in the ports – or doubling up on lines on the pier. For bigger ships, that means getting far out to sea and riding out the storm.

At the same time, the Coast Guard has to protect its own capacity to help with rescues after the storm passes. All four C-130s based in Elizabeth City, N.C., are flying on patrols on Friday, but will move inland as far as West Virginia as the storm approaches. Coast Guard helicopters, too, are moving inland.

“We’re making sure that everybody is aware of what’s in store for them,” says US Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Steve Carleton. After the storm, the planes and helicopters swing back into service. “As soon as it is safe for them to be airborne, they will do so,” he adds.

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