Window for hurricane Irene preparation 'quickly closing'

Federal authorities, including President Obama, are urging Americans to take precautions before hurricane Irene hits. Some 70 million people on the US East Coast could be affected.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama speaks about hurricane Irene during a news conference in Chilmark, Mass. on Martha's Vineyard on Friday, Aug. 26.

President Obama on Friday morning urged Americans in the path of hurricane Irene to take the storm seriously, and Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano warned that the “window is quickly closing” to make preparations.

Irene strengthened Friday morning as it moved closer to an expected landfall near Cape Lookout, N.C., where the first cloud bands appeared at 10 a.m. Friday. The storm is currently a Category 2 hurricane, and some 70 million Americans along the country's most populated coastline could be affected.

“All indications point to this being a historic hurricane,” said Mr. Obama, encouraging people to follow evacuation orders from local officials and to go to for advice on how to prepare. “We ordered an aircraft carrier group out to sea to avoid this storm yesterday. So if you're in the way of this hurricane, you should be preparing now.”

The governors of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York have declared states of emergency as hurricane Irene nears land. So far, Obama has declared North Carolina a federal disaster area ahead of the storm's arrival.

“The storm has grown, increasing the probability of tropical-storm winds from North Carolina to New England,” says Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. “This is not just a coastal event.”

The track northward has remained firm, Mr. Read adds: “Our confidence is higher than normal that the center of the hurricane will pass through that area.”

Federal storm-surge maps show the potential for four- to 10-foot surges across a massive swath of the eastern United States, with potentially disastrous impacts in eastern North Carolina, the Tidewater area of Virginia, as well as the Potomac River that runs through Washington, D.C.

“We're seeing very strong sustained winds, which will mean a lot of trees down, a lot of power lines down, heavy rain, flooding, and storm-surge potential,” Read says.

Emergency equipment, food, water, power repair crews, and high-water rescue teams are staged from North Carolina to New England, federal officials say. Evacuations from barrier islands, beach areas, and low-lying coastal areas will probably intensify Friday as the storm closes in on the US mainland.

“People should expect widespread power outages, but we can change the outcome when it comes to loss of life,” says Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “People [in the direct path of the storm] need to leave early, get somewhere safe. Don't wait for another forecast, because then all your planning could be in vain.”

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