United States President Barack Obama warned on Saturday that the US east coast was in for a “long 72 hours” as he led his government’s response to Hurricane Irene at a disaster command centre in Washington.
Obama chaired a meeting at the National Response Coordination Centre (NRCC) set up at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) headquarters in Washington, which is marshalling federal and local hurricane-relief efforts.
“This is going to be a tough slog getting through this thing,” Obama said during a video teleconference including senior federal officials and local government agencies in the east coast path of Irene.
“It’s going to be a long 72 hours. Obviously a lot of families are going to be affected … the biggest concern I’m having right now has to do with flooding and power,” Obama said.
“[It] sounds like that’s going to be an enormous strain on a lot of states” that could last days, or even longer in some cases.
Officials said the NRCC brings together multiple government agencies and departments to coordinate disaster response with federal, state and local groups around the clock.
The White House appears to have carefully considered the lesson of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when a botched response effort and confusion between state and federal agencies inflicted a heavy political price on former president George W Bush.
Obama returned early from his island holiday on Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts and appeared keen to be visibly in charge as the response to Hurricane Irene unfolds.
Earlier on Saturday, Obama held a conference call with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate and other senior emergency management officials.
“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.
Sustained winds of 140km an hour lashed coastal areas as Irene made landfall near the southern end of a chain of barrier islands that ring the North Carolina coast, the National Hurricane Centre said.
Cities along the east coast of the US — from Washington to New York to Boston — braced for the impact with hundreds of thousands of people ordered to evacuate low-lying areas.
Hurricane Irene brought international travel chaos on Saturday with hundreds of flights cancelled while New York shut down its transport system fearing widespread flooding.
Many airlines cancelled flights to New York, Washington and other eastern US airports as far south as Miami, Florida as Irene charged up the east coast.
British Airways, Air France, American Airlines, Continental and major Asian airlines cancelled scores of flights to and from Europe and Asia while hundreds of domestic flights fell victim to the killer storm.
New York’s J.F. Kennedy airport cancelled all arrivals and departures were restricted before the arrival of the storm. The region’s Newark and La Guardia airports saw similar chaos.
An Air France spokesperson in Paris said the company’s flights to and from New York were not expected to resume before Monday.
Rail traffic across the eastern US also came to a standstill and public transport in the New York region was halted. In New York City, it was the first shutdown ever caused by a weather disaster.
Subway rail stations were roped off after the final trains left. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was unable to say when trains and buses would start again.
The last bus rides were free and no tolls were charged on New York bridges on Saturday to help those evacuating low-lying areas.
The hurricane is expected to hit New York City on Saturday night.
The New York metro is one of the world’s biggest with 468 stations served by some 6 380 subway cars. There are also about 5 900 buses.
The MTA has particular concerns about the 13 subway tunnels that go under the rivers that surround Manhattan. Authorities have also said bridges will close once wind speeds go over 96km an hour.
No particular traffic problems have been reported, city authorities said.
More than a million people have been evacuated from New Jersey’s coastline, state Governor Chris Christie said.
“Over a million people” have obeyed an evacuation order and gone inland, including 98% of the population of Cape May, an isolated point in the path of the hurricane, Christie told a televised news conference.
He said the gambling resort of Atlantic City risked taking a serious pounding and that a last ditch effort would be made to persuade some 600 elderly people still there to leave.
“We’re making one last run in Atlantic City to try to convince these folks that in fact they need to go,” Christie said, adding that no one would be arrested or otherwise forced.
In his trademark blunt style, Christie on Friday told holidaymakers on the popular coast to “get the hell off the beach”.
Irene was expected to hit the urban New Jersey and New York area during the night, reaching full force Sunday, before moving north. — AFP