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Massive hurricane churns northward

Emergency officials promise state-Federal coordination in disaster response

MIAMI (UPI) | August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene, a massive storm, churned northward along the U.S. East Coast Saturday afternoon, bearing punishing wind, rain and surf surges.

The U.S. Hurricane Center in Miami said in its 9 p.m. (EDT) advisory that Irene was about 100 miles south-southwest of Ocean City, Md., and 285 miles south-southwest of New York City. The Category 1 storm's winds were hitting 80 mph on a sustained basis as it headed to the north-northeast at 16 mph, the forecasters at the center said.

With Irene's northward progress, the hurricane warning was discontinued south of Surf City, N.C., the center said, but a hurricane warning was in effect north of Surf City to Sagamore Beach, Mass.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for Chesapeake Bay from Drum Point northward and the tidal Potomac, north of Sagamore Beach to Eastport Maine, the U.S.-Canada border northeastward to Fort Lawrence, and the south coast of Nova Scotia from Fort Lawrence to Porters Lake.

Irene was expected to gradually increase its forward speed in the next day or so, moving over the Mid-Atlantic Coast during the night, across southern New England Sunday and into eastern Canada Sunday night.

Irene was forecast to maintain hurricane status until it makes landfall in New England, and become a post-tropical cyclone Sunday night or early Monday.

Irene's hurricane-force winds reach outward up to 85 miles and is pushing tropical storm gales out 290 miles.

Sustained winds of 61 mph were reported at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, with gusts to 68 mph and storm surges of about 4 feet.

Ten to 14 inches of rain was reported over a large portion of eastern North Carolina, where storm surges of 5-9 feet were expected.

Six to 12 inches of rain is forecast for most of the Eastern Seaboard in Irene's path that could cause widespread, life-threatening flash floods.

Dangerous swells, surf and rip currents are also expected, and tornadoes are possible.

Irene had already been blamed for two deaths in Virginia, CNN reported. At least three in North Carolina were believed to be linked to the storm.

New York City shut down its subway system Saturday for the first time ever. New Jersey Transit planned to halt all its buses, trains and light rail and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority, which serves the Philadelphia area, was also being closed down.

New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman said that the state's barrier islands and Cape May had been almost entirely evacuated. Atlantic City casinos had their first weather-related closing since Hurricane Gloria in 1985, The Philadelphia Inquirer said.

"The best way for to preserve human life on the Jersey Shore is for there to be no human beings on the Jersey Shore," Christie said, encouraging everyone to leave.

In Washington, President Obama, back from his vacation on Massachusetts' Martha's Vineyard, visited the National Response Coordination Center in the Federal Emergency Management Administration headquarters, where he told staff, "You guys are doing a great job obviously ... ." The president then participated in a conference call with federal and state agencies where FEMA Director Craig Fugate informed him, "We didn't start today."

"We've been doing this since early in the week," Fugate said, adding, "We are following the storm literally up the I-95 corridor."

"Each conversation I have had with state and local officials, they have confirmed to me that the relationship with FEMA has been outstanding,'' Obama said. "The inter-agency cooperation at the federal level has been outstanding. They recognize that this is going to be a tough slide getting through this thing, but they are very appreciative of the outstanding work that all of you have done.''"I have not yet heard from any of the regions as we just listened to, anybody who is suggesting that we haven't done everything we can on this front.''

Obama told the participants once the storm passes, "Obviously we are going to have to make sure that on the response and recovery phase we are just as effective and on top of it.''

"It's going to be a long 72 hours and obviously a lot of families are going to be effected," Obama said. "What we heard, the biggest concern I am having right now is the flooding and power. It sounds like that is going to be an enormous strain on a lot of states and that may take days, even longer in some cases, depending on the track of the storm.''

FEMA said the president had signed pre-disaster emergency declarations for Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia. The designations make available federal support to augment state and local efforts to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety.

FEMA positioned 18 Incident Management Assistance Teams along the coast to coordinate with state, tribal and local officials to identify needs and shortfalls affecting potential disaster response and recovery. Six national urban search and rescue teams have also been placed on alert in the event that search and rescue support is needed. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deployed five Disaster Medical Assistance Teams to staging areas.

The secretary of defense cleared the way for the deployment of up to 6,500 active-duty military personnel if needed.

More than 1,200 National Guard members in seven states were called up, with more than 83,000 National Guard personnel available if needed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has personnel in place.

States, localities and the American Red Cross had opened more than 150 shelters in eight states as local evacuation orders went into effect.

Copyright 2011 United Press International, Inc. (UPI). Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.

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