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Fen Rascoe boards up his parents' cottage as they prepare for Hurricane Irene on Thursday in Nags Head, N.C., which is under a mandatory evacuation order.
Fen Rascoe boards up his parents' cottage as they prepare for Hurricane Irene on Thursday in Nags Head, N.C., which is under a mandatory evacuation order. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Hurricane Irene, with winds of 115 mph, swept through the Bahamas Thursday on a course to make landfall in North Carolina on Saturday. Evacuation orders have been issued in North Carolina already, and emergency declarations have been made as far north as New Jersey.
Officials are warning that high winds and heavy rain can be expected throughout much of the East Coast this weekend, along with flooding and power outages. The government has been busy stockpiling supplies, preparing for the worst storm to hit that coastline in years.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate says his agency has not been wasting any time.
"We're busy," he says. "We have teams ... deployed into the state emergency operations center in North Carolina, supporting their teams. We have teams that are either there or en route all the way up the East Coast, including Maine."
Those teams will help state and local officials respond to the storms, with damage assessments, evacuations and supplying emergency shelters. FEMA has set up supply depots in North Carolina, New Jersey and Massachusetts, with stores of everything from baby formula to generators.
"And these are not the little ones you get at the hardware store — these are big generators designed for public safety and critical infrastructure," Fugate says.
Irene's track is still not entirely clear. It is likely to make landfall on North Carolina's Outer Banks early Saturday, bypassing Florida. From there, it's predicted to head up the East Coast — how far inland remains to be seen. But officials say it's a big storm, and its effects will be widely felt along the Eastern Seaboard, no matter its exact path.
"At a very minimum," says National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read, "we're going to get 5 to 10 inches of rain and a wide swath of winds that are blowing in the tropical storm gust to hurricane force, even inland. You're going to have a lot of tree-fall out of that, and you're going to get a lot of flooding out of that — it's almost a given."
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Andy Sullivan (left) and J.C. Baker help to board up a home along North Carolina's Outer Banks on Thursday.
Andy Sullivan (left) and J.C. Baker help to board up a home along North Carolina's Outer Banks on Thursday. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Already officials along the Atlantic are preparing. North Carolina's coastal areas are under an evacuation order, and the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have declared states of emergency. The Navy sent its ships out to sea from bases on the Chesapeake. New Jersey prepared to open emergency shelters. And in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents of the city's low-lying areas to prepare to move out when the storm reaches there later this weekend.
"If you live in one of these areas, why don't you spend a little time today with some precautions and see if that long-lost cousin is willing to put you up overnight," he said.
The debacle of Katrina sensitized federal emergency officials to their role in disaster assistance. Administration officials say they're committed to bringing all of the resources of what they label "the federal family" to bear in preparing for Irene. The president himself, vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, has been briefed about storm preparations.
Fugate stresses, though, it's state and local governments that have the lead role in preparing for and responding to the storm.
"We're doing things to get ready, but we're not getting in front of the governors' teams — we're there to support them."
The expected storm is already causing travel disruptions; airlines have canceled flights to the East, and Amtrak has ended service south of Washington, as officials prepare for a difficult weekend on the East Coast.