President Obama decided midday Friday to cut short his family vacation and fly back to Washington in the evening to direct Hurricane Irene response efforts, the White House announced today. He had previously planned to return by midday Saturday.
The president alerted his staff that he and his family would depart early from Martha’s Vineyard after he made brief public remarks warning East Coast populations to heed evacuation orders and to take seriously advice to prepare for severe conditions in the next few days, a White House spokesman told reporters.
“All indications point to this being a historic hurricane,” Obama warned Americans during a three-minute speech delivered at the secluded compound he and his family have enjoyed since Aug. 18. “All of us have to take this storm seriously. You need to listen to your state and local officials, and if you are given an evacuation order, please follow it.”
Satellite technology and time-lapse photography posted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on YouTube brought home Obama’s reasons for worry that the East Coast will feel Irene’s punch. Meteorologists warned that the hurricane picked up speed late Friday as it neared the North Carolina coast.
The administration, under Obama’s direction, also is prepared to respond to anticipated economic damage and disruptions to major population and commercial centers. While at Martha’s Vineyard, Obama has participated in a handful of conference calls with federal disaster managers and Cabinet officials, and a White House spokesman has offered a running commentary in the last week about the president’s engagement with the government’s mobilization in between his golf and beach relaxation.
The White House released a photograph Friday morning showing a casually dressed president on the telephone with top disaster advisers, including the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The president has no public events scheduled Saturday. He had planned to take part in the dedication Sunday of Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, but that event has been postponed until September or October because of the storm. Obama is scheduled to be in Minneapolis-St. Paul on Aug. 30 to speak to an American Legion Convention, and on Labor Day he will be in Detroit for a speech geared to American workers. The White House has said that “shortly after” the holiday the president will deliver a major national address outlining a new plan to encourage job creation.
On Friday, Obama also convened a conference call with six mayors and seven East Coast governors -- the officials who will tap federal emergency assistance the moment the hurricane hits their jurisdictions. Obama coordinated with the mayors of New York City, Norfolk, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore and Virginia Beach. The governors of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts and North Carolina also participated, according to Josh Earnest, deputy White House press secretary.
To underscore that federal preparations for a massive hurricane during the Obama administration have long been under way, Earnest pointed out that the president in 2009 participated in a federal-state disaster simulation exercise, one that imagined a Category 3 hurricane striking New York City.
Irene’s emerging threat this week compelled mayors and governors along the Atlantic coast to mobilize communities and their state resources, relying on a playbook they rehearsed as part of the “national level exercise” preparations the White House described.
While Obama was largely out of sight, mayors and governors on Friday issued stern evacuation warnings, described roadway traffic restrictions, deployed emergency assets, and delivered instructions to citizens during public broadcasts seen live on local and cable television and heard on radio.
Although damage projections in advance of a Category 2 hurricane vary widely, some experts suggested Irene’s costs, as measured in insurance claims, could easily top $10 billion along the country’s economically vital and congested East Coast. Tens of millions of people will feel the impact of an Atlantic cyclone as powerful as Irene, which is bearing down on an extensive expanse of land mass. The hurricane’s projected strike path stretches from the southern coast to Maine.
Although loss of life is the predominant concern, government and disaster experts warned of possibly crippling flooding and storm surge, massive power outages, wind and structural damage, disruptions to communications locally and along the coast, and interruptions to air, ship and rail traffic essential to U.S. commerce.
NOAA’s historical analysis shows that deaths from Atlantic hurricanes can be significant, despite decades of technological advances and improved capabilities in flood control, construction requirements, disaster preparedness and response, and medical treatment.