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Eastern Seaboard braces for Irene

Faith-based and voluntary organizations prepare to help disaster survivors

BY JOHN PAPE | BALTIMORE | August 26, 2011

Even as rains and wind from Hurricane Irene began to lash the coast of North Carolina Friday, much of the Eastern Seaboard braced for the massive storm as it targeted such major cities as Baltimore; New York and Boston.

Some 29 million people were under a hurricane warning Friday evening as the Category 2 storm packing 100 mph winds threatened some of the most heavily-populated cities in the nation.

In terms of size, Irene was larger than Hurricane Ike that devastated Galveston and much of the Houston area in 2008.

A host of faith-based organizations began staging resources and preparing response teams as evacuations of historic proportions were ordered from coastal North Carolina through the New York City metropolitan area.,

The Emergency Response Program of Church World Service provided 600 blankets, 600 hygiene kits and 600 cleanup buckets to the Chesapeake American Red Cross.

In North Carolina, the Salvation Army in one North Carolina county, reported shelters were beginning to fill up.

Gov. Bev Perdue urged residents to finalize storm preparations and be prepared to evacuate if ordered by local officials. She also spoke with President Barrack Obama, thanked him for the federal government’s assistance and asked him to be prepared to provide further help if the storm hits the state hard.

“We continue to prepare for Hurricane Irene, and we’re ready to handle this storm,” Perdue said. “Residents and visitors must heed evacuation orders and other instructions from local and state officials. This hurricane is real and poses a threat to North Carolina.”

Twenty North Carolina counties with a combined population of more than 3.5 million people were expected to be impacted by Hurricane Irene. Threatened counties included Beaufort, Bertie, Brunswick, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Craven, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, New Hanover, Onslow, Pamlico, Pasquotank, Pender, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington.

Irene began to come ashore just before 9 p.m. local time and the entire North Carolina coast was expected to experience hurricane force winds all day Saturday. Heavy rains and flash flooding were expected, along with storm surge reaching up the Neuse and Tar rivers. Emergency managers reported weather conditions were “deteriorating in a hurry” as Irene made landfall.

The N.C. National Guard placed 200 soldiers on active duty and positioned troops and equipment in coastal areas. An additional 2,500 troops were placed on standby.

Forty swiftwater rescue teams, as well as several urban search and rescue teams from Wilmington, Lumberton and Greenville were placed on “high alert.”

Shelters were opened in Brunswick, Craven, Duplin, Halifax, Hertford, Johnston, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, New Hanover, Northampton Pender and Wilson counties. The state coordinated emergency shelter operations with the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, North Carolina Baptist Men and North Carolina Social Services to shelter and feed evacuees. Mass care support trailers and mobile animal trailers were placed on standby in Halifax and Northampton counties to support those shelters.

Evacuations were ordered on Ocracoke Island, as well as in Beaufort, Brunswick, Carteret, Currituck, Dare, Hyde, New Hanover, Pender, Tyrrell and Washington counties.

Local states of emergency were declared in Beaufort, Carteret, Currituck, Hyde, New Hanover, Pamlico, Pender, Tyrrell and Washington counties, and state ports were closed in Morehead City and Wilmington. All rail transportation was cancelled for Saturday.

Up the coast, authorities in Virginia were also making preparations for Irene, including closing state offices at 3 p.m. Friday. Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency, noting the storm’s forecast track had shifted and urging coastal residents to be prepared to evacuate.

"Over the last 24 hours, a number of weather models have shifted the forecasted track of Irene slightly to the west, increasing the potential for inclement weather and potentially dangerous conditions in portions of Virginia. At this time, I encourage all Virginians to gather items they may need this weekend in case of power outages and disruptions in public services and to make sure their family members and friends are also prepared for this storm,” McDonnell said.

Even before Irene hit Virginia, its effects claimed the life of a victim. A 22-year-old surfer was pronounced dead at a Virginia Beach hospital after getting caught in rip currents triggered by the approaching storm.

In Maryland, emergency management agency officials were urging residents statewide to take precautions, even if they are not in the high impact area.

“During tropical storm and hurricane force winds, items we usually consider harmless can become dangerous projectiles,” Maryland Emergency Management Agency Director Richard Muth said. “We urge property owners to take a few minutes, look around and either bring items inside or make sure they are secure.”

Although the lower Eastern Shore was expected to take the worst impact from Irene, most of the state was expected to experience severe weather beginning Saturday evening.

Additionally, the Maryland Department of Environment announced the temporary closure of the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, as well as the state’s coastal bays, to shellfish harvesting from Sunday, Aug. 28 through Friday, Sept. 2 due to possible contamination from the storm.

The closure could remain in effect longer if water-quality monitoring shows additional concerns. It could be lifted before that date if the storm’s effects on water quality are less than expected.

“Maryland is taking this emergency action to prevent the potentially harmful effects of eating shellfish exposed to contaminated waters,” said MDE Secretary Robert M. Summers.

Further up the coast in New Jersey, Asbury Park was also bracing for a hard hit from the storm. Despite warnings to evacuate, many in Asbury Park remained Friday evening in an almost party atmosphere. That caused New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to issue a blunt warning.

“Get . . . off the beach in Asbury Park and get out,” Christie said.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 people in low-lying areas and prepared to shut down its entire mass transit system by noon on Saturday. All New York City airports were also set to close at the same time.

In announcing the evacuation, Bloomberg stressed the seriousness of the threat.

"We've never done a mandatory evacuation before and we wouldn't be doing it now if we didn't think this storm had the potential to be very serious," Bloomberg said during a news conference.

The unprecedented evacuations were ordered for people living in areas near the waterfront. New York City police and firefighters had a fleet of rescue boats at the ready, if needed.

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