Officials warn of Irene’s dangers as storm moves up East Coast

The nation’s top emergency response officials issued stark warnings that Hurricane Irene brings an array of major dangers along the East Coast, despite being downgraded to a Category-1 storm.

Forecasters said the storm had made landfall in New Jersey at 5:35 a.m. Sunday, The Associated Press reported. Reports estimated that 2 million homes and businesses had lost power as the storm moved north along the Eastern Seaboard.

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While Irene’s severity was downgraded before it made landfall Saturday in North Carolina, the National Hurricane Center warned that the storm still had maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour.

“Irene remains a large and dangerous storm,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Saturday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Washington headquarters. “People need to take it seriously. People need to be prepared.

“We anticipate heavy rain, potential flooding and significant power outages throughout the area of the storm, which means all up and down the Eastern Seaboard.”

President Obama held a conference call with emergency response officials and toured the National Response Coordination Center at FEMA’s headquarters shortly after Napolitano spoke. The president then held a teleconference with federal and state agencies involved in the response effort.

The White House has been aggressive in showing Obama’s engagement with the storm and the breadth of the federal response.

The administration does not want to invite comparisons to the Bush administration’s flawed 2005 response to the devastating Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, which was a low-point for George W. Bush’s presidency.

Obama — who has personally warned of the storm’s dangers — has declared emergencies in states in Irene’s path, a step that mobilizes federal resources. 

Obama held a conference call at 10:30 a.m. Saturday with Napolitano, Fugate and other emergency management officials, the White House said, along with a subsequent conference call Saturday evening.

“Secretary Napolitano and Administrator Fugate updated the president on the intensity of the storm, the anticipated track of the storm and the response and recovery assets that have been pre-deployed along the East Coast in anticipation of the storm’s arrival,” the White House said in a summary of the call.

“The president reiterated that we know that this storm’s impacts will continue to be felt throughout the weekend and that we still have work ahead of us to support potentially impacted states and communities,” the White House said. “The president asked the team that he be updated, as necessary, throughout the day and overnight.”

The Associated Press reported that the president asked top officials to keep him updated on the storm’s progress throughout Saturday night and that he would hold a Sunday morning conference call to review developments.

Officials stressed that while the hurricane had been downgraded to a Category-1 storm, the potential for damage was still great. Fugate noted that storm categories based on wind speeds don’t reflect other dangers, such as floods and tornadoes.

“Even though this may be a Category-1 hurricane, rainfall amounts are not tied to category of storm,” he said at the same briefing. 

“Some of our most devastating floods have occurred in tropical storms.”

He also warned that potential tornadoes, while not expected to be as large as the twisters earlier this spring, could “still be very devastating.”

Fugate and Napolitano also warned people in the hurricane’s wake to stay inside, citing hazards left behind afterward and the need to keep roads clear for emergency response and utility vehicles. 

Fugate noted risks from downed power lines and trees.

“We have seen as many people injured and lose their lives after the storm came through because it is still very dangerous,” Fugate said.

Napolitano said states have not yet reported any unmet needs but cautioned that “we are really at the beginning of this storm response.”

“We will work with the states as they do their assessments and see what damage the storm has caused in their areas,” she said.

This story was first posted at 12:33 p.m. on Aug. 27 and has been updated.

Jamie Klatell and Meghashyam Mali contributed to this story.