WASHINGTON, Aug. 26, 2011 -- Millions of people along the eastern seaboard should be preparing to face what may be a historic hurricane, President Barack Obama said today.
"All indications point to this being a historic hurricane," he said, speaking to the nation from Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
"Although we can't predict with perfect certainty the impact of Irene over the next few days," the president said, "the federal government has spent the better part of the last week working closely with officials in communities that could be affected by this storm to see to it that we are prepared."
Now is the time, he added, "for residents of these communities, in the hours that remain, to do the same."
In its latest forecast for the category 2 Irene, the National Hurricane Center said the hurricane's core will pass well off the Georgia coast today, approach the North Carolina coast tonight, and pass near or over the North Carolina coast tomorrow.
Tomorrow night, center officials said, the hurricane is forecast to move near or over the mid-Atlantic coast.
"As Hurricane Irene churns in the waters of the Atlantic," Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote today in a message to service members, "I wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you who could be impacted by this storm to take all necessary precautions."
As people along the East Coast make personal preparations, the secretary added, "this department is already working closely with [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to provide support to the American people."
Panetta directed the U.S. Northern Command to support FEMA, and supplies are being staged at incident support bases at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and Westover Air Reserve Base and Fort Devens in Massachusetts.
For service members who are away from home as the storm approaches, Panetta added, "as secretary of defense, you have my word that I will do everything possible to take care of your families who might be in the path of the storm."
Although military spouses and families "are some of the strongest and most resilient people I have had the privilege to meet," the secretary added, "I want you to know that they won't be alone in the wake of the storm."
Panetta said he has directed the service chiefs to ensure that all appropriate organizations are poised and ready to proactively provide needed support.
In a briefing this morning about the status of Hurricane Irene, U.S. Homeland Security, FEMA and other officials discussed the latest forecasts and urged East Coast residents to prepare for the worst.
"The president has directed us to ensure that all needed resources are available," Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, "and that we coordinate closely with our state and local partners … [and] we are doing just that."
FEMA "has its national incident management assistance teams already located in a number of the states," Napolitano added. "… That will ensure we are seamless in our response and recovery."
Bill Read, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center, described the hurricane's path.
"We have hurricane warnings extending all the way up from the North Carolina-South Carolina border to Sandy Hook in New Jersey, and a hurricane watch is now from there up to the mouth of the Merrimac River in New England," Read said.
"The biggest concerns will be today for the Carolinas, into the Tidewater [Va. area] going into tomorrow and then further up the coast," Read said, adding, "We're going to have a coastal issue as well as an inland issue."
U.S. Northern Command is coordinating Defense Department support to FEMA and state and local response efforts to Hurricane Irene's East Coast landfall.
Northcom, the command reported, is now supporting 13 FEMA-requested mission assignments.
In the past 24 hours, Northcom activated defense coordinating officers and defense coordinating elements from U.S. Army North to support FEMA in Virginia, New Jersey and New York, and at FEMA's regional response coordination centers.
The centers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta are operating at heightened levels to ensure support to states affected by severe weather.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is providing emergency, public works and engineering support to two of FEMA's regional centers. The Corps of Engineers also provided FEMA a generator-staging plan and is deploying emergency teams to support state and federal coordinating officers.
Northcom is providing 18 utility helicopters for potential hurricane search-and-rescue operations and has asked the Joint Staff to place three pararescue teams, a civil support planning team and communications support packages on a 24-hour prepare-to-deploy order.
At FEMA's request, Northcom already had sent coordinating officers and staff to Puerto Rico, where Irene made landfall Aug. 21, and North Carolina, and sent coordinating officers and emergency preparedness liaison officers to FEMA regional centers.
Obama declared a state of emergency for North Carolina today and has ordered federal aid to supplement the state and local response to the hurricane. The National Guard Bureau reports that 42 North Carolina National Guard members are responding.
"Today [the hurricane] has gotten closer [to the coast] and the storm is growing," Read said.
"Those two factors have led to a much higher probability of tropical-storm-force winds, very likely all the way from the Carolinas to southern New England … and then a good chance well up into interior New England," he added.
Read said to expect "a huge swath of 5 to 10 inches of rain through the densely populated northeast corridor where we've had almost 300 to 600 percent of normal rain in the last 30 days."
Rain on saturated ground, he said, contributes to an increased risk of flash flooding and river flooding, and increases the chances that high winds will bring trees down.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said the accurate forecasts and efficient hurricane preparations do not mean there be will no damages from the storm.
"It does not mean that power won't go out over large areas and that it won't take some time to get things back to normal," he said.
"The one thing we can change the outcome on is loss of life," Fugate added. "That's why evacuation orders that are being issued in the coastal areas are key."