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Eastern Seaboard Braces for Potentially ‘Historic’ Hurricane Irene

August 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Hurricane Irene was headed for a weekend assault up the East Coast, threatening to bring powerful winds and heavy rain to tens of millions of Americans. Jeffrey Brown discusses the storm with Federal Emergency Management Agency's Craig Fugate, the National Hurricane Center's Ed Rappaport and New York Times' Michael Grynbaum.
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JEFFREY BROWN: From North Carolina to New England today, much of the East Coast faced a weekend assault by Hurricane Irene. Up to 65 million Americans were in its path, and even though top winds dropped to 100 miles an hour, officials warned the storm could be one of the most damaging in decades.

The warnings came from the very top, with President Obama saying Irene could be a historic hurricane.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I cannot stress this highly enough: If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now. Don’t wait. Don’t delay. We all hope for the best, but we have to be prepared for the worst.

JEFFREY BROWN: Images from space showed the big storm churning north at a relatively slow 14 miles an hour.

The eye was expected to strike along the Outer Banks of North Carolina by early Saturday morning. From there, it could skirt east of Washington, before crossing near Philadelphia, and blowing through New Jersey and New York City late Saturday night, into Sunday morning.

For North Carolinians, the threat intensified through the day as winds began to build.

WOMAN: We’re out of here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thousands of people spilled into cars and made the trek inland. Gov. Bev Perdue warned all those along the state’s coast, and not just on the Outer Banks, to evacuate.

GOV. BEVERLY PERDUE, D-N.C.: As governor of the state, I want to remind you once again that this hurricane is real. It is headed our way. We are ready. We’re prepared for the worst. And we continue to pray for the best. I urge every citizen along the coastal plains to evacuate. It is so much better to be safe than sorry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite the warnings, there were still people swimming today, and stalwart locals prepared to stick it out.

MAN: We have been getting prepared. We know a lot of people are leaving town and preparing themselves for what might be severe. But we’re just happy to keep doing what we always do.

WOMAN: Probably some scariness in the — in the wind, just generally being scared, I guess, but we will get through it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But emergencies were declared in at least six states and the District of Columbia. And up and down the East Coast, national, state and local officials added to the urgency.

SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY JANET NAPOLITANO: Given the amount of rain associated with this storm and the likelihood of flooding, however, I would encourage you not to focus too much on whether it’s a Category 2 or a 3. If you are in the storm path, you won’t be able to tell much difference.

MICHAEL NUTTER, (D) mayor of Philadelphia: Be prepared. Stay safe. Be smart. Evacuate, if necessary. Otherwise, please stay inside.

MAN: Exercise extreme caution tomorrow afternoon in particular during the time when the winds begin to pick up.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: So, if for some reason you were thinking about going to dinner in Atlantic City tonight, forget it. Go someplace else.

JEFFREY BROWN: In New York City, the mass transit system, serving eight million riders a day, planned to close at noon on Saturday, something it’s never done in advance of a storm.

And Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of 270,000 people from low-lying areas.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, (I) mayor of New York: Now, we have 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. The best outcome would be if the storm veers off to the east and doesn’t hit us, or doesn’t hit us hard. But we can’t depend on Mother Nature being so kind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some in the region summoned memories of the great hurricane of 1938 that killed as many as 800 people. Also known as the Long Island Express, it devastated the New York City region before ravaging New England.

It was the first major hurricane to strike there since 1869. Today, the wreckage across the Bahamas gave a glimpse of what Irene may have in store for the U.S., with millions of dollars in property damage and major power outages. In the meantime, the storm was already wreaking havoc with air travel, with a number of flights canceled and hundreds more likely. Amtrak service up and down the coast was curtailed as well, at least through Sunday.

Irene’s approach also forced organizers in Washington to cancel Sunday’s dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. And the storm prompted the president to shorten his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., by a day. He’s heading back to Washington before Irene makes landfall.

And for more on the preparations throughout the East Coast, we hear from Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He’s been briefing the president regularly. I spoke with him a short time ago in Washington.

Craig Fugate, welcome.

This is both, of course, a national — a national issue and an intensely local one. What’s your main priority right now?

CRAIG FUGATE, Federal Emergency Management Agency: Well, the main priority for everybody is supporting the evacuations that the local officials are having to order and may have to add to as the storm moves north, and then getting ready for the immediate response afterwards and supporting the governors as they prepare for Hurricane Irene.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you satisfied with these evacuations orders and the orders so far?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well yes, I think the local officials are doing a good job.

They know their areas. The Hurricane Center is providing the best possible information. And we’re seeing a lot of activity. And people are not even waiting for the evacuation orders. A lot of them are taking the time now to get to a safe area just in case.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you’re looking at such a huge swathe of the country, the whole Eastern Coast, what kind of coordination issues are there for you and how well is that going?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, again, we have teams that have gone into the states that were most immediately impacted early on. So we already had teams in North Carolina for several days.

We have teams that have gone into the Mid-Atlantic and now up into the New England states. Again, our goal is to be there before the hurricane hits, to be part of the governor’s team, so we’re not having to play catchup if we get damages. So we’re working together up and down the I-95 Corridor.

And so again, we’re doing what we need to do to get ready, but we also ask the public to prepare. And there’s still some time for folks, but it’s going to run out. So we are encouraging people to take steps to get ready, heed those evacuation orders. And if they haven’t taken those steps, they can still go to ready.gov or to M.FEMA.gov to get information on the go.

JEFFREY BROWN: Talk a little bit about one of the key issues here. Of course, there’s all these big population centers that are in the storm’s away, New York, New Jersey on up into New England, places in particular that are not used to this sort of thing. So how worried are you about their ability to cope?

CRAIG FUGATE: Well, you know, let’s take New York City.

This is a local community that has been through the terrorist attacks, but we have also been doing a lot of planning up there with the mayor’s team and the state team about hurricanes. And so a lot of people may not realize this, but the city of New York has been doing a lot of preparation and planning for hurricanes.

And now they’re implementing those plans. So while they have not had a lot of hurricane, they have been really working hard to get ready for one.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you finally and briefly about the other — another big concern of course is the power grid, the outages that are expected. How does that work? Is that all left to the power companies or is there a coordination among them and state and federal agencies?

CRAIG FUGATE: We work together. And our lead agency for that here at the federal level is Department of Energy, which leads our emergency energy group.

But most of it is going to be the private sector restoration with some of the governments doing that. But we do work as a team. What we’re doing is bringing in generators ahead of time for those critical facilities that may need emergency power. But we do expect that there could be widespread power outages and it could take days to weeks in some areas.

That’s why we’re encouraging people to get ready now and prepare for power outages even if you are not along the coast. We think that the heavy rainfall and power outages could be some of the more significant impacts well inland.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, FEMA Director Craig Fugate, thanks so much.

CRAIG FUGATE: You’re welcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: And back live now to Ed Rappaport. He’s the deputy director of the National Hurricane Center.

Thanks for joining us.

So with everyone now focused on the storm’s track, what are you seeing and what are the main variables?

ED RAPPAPORT, National Hurricane Center: This is — has a couple unusual aspects.

Of course, the one you have been talking about already, and that is a threat for the Northeastern United States, probably the most significant tropical event for some areas in the last 20 years there. What makes this also different is that, while the strength of the storm is down a little bit, and it’s not nearly as strong as some we have seen in the past, it is still a significant threat.

And one of the reasons is because it is so large. The area of hurricane-force winds will take close to 10 hours to pass some areas, and tropical-storm-force winds could be sustained for 24 hours in other locations, too.

So there is a concern about the duration of the storm. In addition, those winds are going to raise the water level, the storm surge by four to eight feet over portions of the coastline all the way from North Carolina to southern New England, so dual concerns there along with some possibility of excessive rainfall and freshwater floods inland to the west of the center.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as you watch this — you were just talking about the strength issue. I don’t know if you heard Janet Napolitano in our tape piece talking about, whether it’s a 3, whether it’s a 2, it’s still powerful, something to be concerned about.

But what strengthens — what makes it pick up strength or lose strength along the way here as you’re watching?

ED RAPPAPORT: We don’t think there will be any significant strengthening. In fact, the weakening trend that we have seen, while slow, is good news. And we think that the weakening will — this trend will persist all the way through southern New England.

That means that we’re looking at a Category 1 to Category 2 landfall in North Carolina, and then a Category 1 hurricane all the way up the U.S. coast, East Coast, from there, either right on the coast or just offshore into southern New England.

The storm just doesn’t have the internal structure to be able to support a very intense maximum wind. But it does have the energetics of a strong storm. It is just spread out over a large area.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so even if it is weak and even if it is down to 1, the potential damage that you look — you are most concerned about is wind and flooding; is that it?

ED RAPPAPORT: That’s correct. The greatest threat for loss of life in a hurricane is drowning. And so we have two threats here. One is from the storm surge along the coast. The other is rainfall in the inland areas, and then again a long period of strong winds which will cause some minor structural damage, will bring down many, many trees. That will be a significant problem in the Northeast.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, you said it’s slow-moving. What makes it so slow-moving?

ED RAPPAPORT: Well, it’s embedded in a relatively slow steering current, as we call it, moving it from south to north. But we do expect it to accelerate over the next day or so, and to really pick up some speed on — later on Saturday and Sunday.

But even so, it’s going to be a prolonged siege for much of the Northeast, again up to 24 hours of tropical storm conditions there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ed Rappaport, thanks so much for joining us.

ED RAPPAPORT: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, lastly, we focus on the historic shutdown and evacuations in New York City.

Michael Grynbaum is covering this for The New York Times and joins us.

Mayor Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of some, it’s about 300,000 people now. How do you do that in such a populous urban center?

MICHAEL GRYNBAUM, The New York Times: With great difficulty.

But as you said, they have been planning it for a few days now. They have had police officers, community representatives and politicians fanning out through all the communities that are right on the coastline, urging residents to leave their homes, telling them that the deadline is by 5:00 p.m. tomorrow.

They have set up shelters throughout the city. There’s room for about 71,000 persons. And the remainder, the city hopes, will stay with relatives or friends throughout the area.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know people, of course, on the Outer Banks, places like that, are used to this sort of thing. They are probably not in Battery Park. They’re not in Coney Island.

So is there a sense of urgency? Is there a sense that you have been able to pick up or other reporters that people are taking this seriously?

MICHAEL GRYNBAUM: Well, we just went through our first earthquake in ages a few days ago. And a lot of New Yorkers were unsettled by that.

You can imagine, the prospect of a hurricane coming to New York City, to neighborhoods like Battery Park, as you say, is just something that would have been unthinkable a few days ago. I think people are really taken aback at the measures that are being taken here, shutting down the New York City subway system for the first time in anyone’s memory, really.

I mean, New York City without its subway is barely the same metropolis. It’s psychologically, I think, a bit taxing on the residents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I know transportation is your main beat. So tell us a little bit more about that. The — how does one shut down the public transportation system, how easy or hard? It couldn’t just be flicking a few switches there, right?

MICHAEL GRYNBAUM: It is a sprawling feat and one that’s almost very rarely been attempted by modern transit agencies.

The subway system basically becomes a chessboard. There are many trains, about 200 of them, that are usually stored in train yards out by the water. Those areas are going to be flooded if this hurricane hits as people expect it to. Those trains have to be moved into the city, into the underground tunnels that are spread throughout the system and stored there, which makes it impossible for them to run normal subway service, since the tunnels are being used for storage.

At the same time, there are maintenance trains, trains that repair electrical signals, trains that pump water. They need to be moved throughout the system, so they will be well-positioned on Sunday night or Monday to come in, assess the damage, and get the thing back ready for commuters again next week.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said it’s flooding that is the major concern there, right, with all the underground.

MICHAEL GRYNBAUM: Oh, absolutely.

Look, there are some open-cut areas of the track that are exposed to the elements. But especially in Lower Manhattan by Wall Street, there are stations that are very low-lying right by the waterline. They tend to be flooded. The signals in the tracks can short-circuit. There can be electrical problems. It makes it impossible to run the trains.

I can tell you, too, that they are not leaving any detail unturned. There are commuter rails out in the suburbs that have grade crossings with wooden gates that block cars. They’re securing those gates, fastening them down, so they don’t fly off and damage people in the vicinity.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a major test.

Michael Grynbaum of The New York Times, thanks so much.

MICHAEL GRYNBAUM: Thanks for having me.