President Obama is cutting short his Martha's Vineyard vacation to return to Washington tonight in anticipation of Hurricane Irene's landfall this weekend. The president warned Americans to prepare for the looming storm as quickly as possible Friday morning.
"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," Obama said.
Cities up and down the east coast are bracing for the storm. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Friday afternoon that the city would be shutting down the city's subway and transit systems and ordered a mandatory evacuation of costal areas of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and lower Manhattan. The White House announced Friday afternoon that the president had declared a state of emergency in New York state.
The National Weather Service has issued a hurricane warning for the coastal areas between Little River Inlet, N.C., and Sandy Hook, N.J.
A hurricane watch is in effect for coastal areas north of Sandy Hook, extending to New York City, Boston and Martha's Vineyard.
Obama warned that Hurricane Irene is “likely to be an extremely dangerous and costly storm” and urged Americans to “take it seriously” in an audio address from Martha’s Vineyard Friday morning.
The president had originally been scheduled to stay in Martha's Vineyard through Saturday. White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the president said to "his team" that he wanted to leave early, shortly following an address in which the president cautioned East Coast residents to prepare for the storm.
Obama's vacation has come under fire from Republicans, who argue that the trip was ill-timed considering troubling economic news and developments in Libya. The president has also had to grapple with the effects of an earthquake that shook the eastern seaboard Tuesday.
By leaving tonight, the Obamas should return to Washington before the storm hits the area. Although the nation's capital is not expected to receive the brunt of the storm, the region is under a tropical storm warning. Some commercial flights and trains into D.C. have already been canceled.
The president said that the federal government was deploying millions of meals and tens of thousands of cots and blankets up and down the eastern seaboard. Forecasters predict the Category 2 storm will rock the coast throughout the weekend, bringing 100-mph-plus winds and inches of rain. More than 65 million Americans are within the storm’s potential path, and the direst predictions have the storm directly affecting cities like New York.
The president urged those within the path of the hurricane to prepare a supply kit and follow the instructions of local officials.
“All indications point to this being a historic hurricane,” Obama said.
Irene figures to be a major test of the president, who was highly critical of what he called the “unconscionable ineptitude” of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Obama has made an effort to be engaged and involved in previous disaster response, including touring Missouri and Alabama towns devastated by tornadoes in May and bringing his family to vacation in the Gulf region during the BP oil spill.
The president was briefed early Friday morning on a conference call with senior White House officials, including Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate. He also said that he has been in contact with governors and mayors of areas in the storm’s path, and pledged federal aid in their efforts.
The federal response to Irene will be coordinated by FEMA, who has already deployed assistance teams on the ground up and down the coast. The government plans to send 200 emergency-response vehicles to the East Coast that will patrol storm-stricken areas and distribute meals and relief supplies, and has built up supplies of ready-to-eat meals in Virginia and Massachusetts.
The White House said that the administration conducted a national-level emergency exercise in 2009 to simulate a hurricane strike on the eastern seaboard. Among the situations simulated was a category-3 hurricane directly striking New York City.
But FEMA also emphasized that state and local governments would be taking the lead on relief efforts, with the federal government assisting and guiding.
“If the public’s seeing FEMA, it’s most likely if we’ve had impacts and we have requests for assistance,” Fugate said Thursday. “Otherwise, we’re doing things to get ready, but we’re not getting in front of the governor’s teams, we’re there to support them.”
The government has also been coordinating with nonprofit groups like the American Red Cross, NAACP and the Southern Baptist Convention to open shelters and prepare supplies.
“We urge everyone to get ready. Have a kit. Have the papers that you need. Supplies for food, the right clothing that you need,” said Red Cross President Gail McGovern.
This story was updated at 5:06 p.m. Eastern.