WASHINGTON — As Hurricane Irene threatened the Outer Banks and most of the Eastern Seaboard, President Barack Obama warned Friday of a historic storm with the potential to flood neighborhoods, down trees, erode beaches and knock out power to tens of millions of people unused to violent tropical weather.
Irene, the closest brush with a major hurricane for many Northeasterners in more than a decade, is likely to be an "extremely dangerous and costly storm," Obama warned, before leaving his vacation on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts a day early to return to Washington. He and his top emergency managers urged people to follow evacuation orders.
"Don't wait. Don't delay," said Obama, who spoke Friday with mayors and governors along the East Coast. "We all hope for the best, but we have to be prepared for the worst. All of us have to take this storm seriously."
New York took the unprecedented step of issuing a mandatory evacuation for some 270,000 residents of lower-lying areas of the city: Battery Park City, Coney Island and the Rockaways. The city also announced that it would end mass transit service at noon Saturday.
Irene was forecast to be just off New York City by early Sunday, possibly still at Category 1 hurricane strength with 85 mph winds.
"You only have to look at the weather maps to understand how big this storm is and how unique it is, and it's heading basically for us," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday afternoon.
Beach communities from North Carolina to Delaware ordered mandatory evacuations, and New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia declared states of emergency in advance of the storm. Some people in Hoboken and Jersey City, N.J., across the river from Manhattan, were asked to evacuate voluntarily. Jersey City's police chief even warned that he might ban driving on Sunday.
Among the government's chief fears: the potential for widespread power outages in a region that's home to more than 65 million people from North Carolina to Maine.
"Those in the path of the storm should make sure that you are also taking necessary and common-sense precautions, such as having an emergency plan, such as having some emergency supplies, some food, some water, a flashlight with batteries, in case we lose power," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned. "We do anticipate a significant amount of power outage with this particular storm."
Pepco, the Washington-area electric utility, offered an ominous automated recording in a call to all residential and small commercial customers Friday morning: "Due to the magnitude of the storm, the company expects the restoration effort to extend over multiple days. Just as Pepco is preparing for Hurricane Irene, we strongly urge you to prepare now for the very real possibility of power outages this weekend."
The company's reliability came into question from customers, regulators and lawmakers after extended outages last year during the major snowstorms in the region.
An investigation by The Washington Post late last year found that the company ranked near the bottom nationally among electricity companies not only in maintaining power but also in returning service to customers
Smaller communities in the path of the storm worried that the potential damage to New York City and Washington would overshadow them. Ray Sturza, the mayor of Kill Devil Hills, N.C., warned that if residents decided not to evacuate the Outer Banks community, they'd be on their own after the storm.
"The path of the storm is going into such major urban populated areas that they're going to be the priority for power restoration. So if you decide to stay this time, you've got to be prepared to be self-sufficient for a longer period of time than you normally would expect to be."
Sturza urged those remaining on the Outer Banks to be prepared enough to be self-sufficient for three to five days, a call echoed by other government officials from the president to Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Here's what you need to be prepared for: power outages that could be days or longer," he said. "And the further away you are from the urban areas, the likelihood that could be, you know, up to a week or more power outages. You're just not going to be able to get everything back on quickly."
Many people who remained at Carolina Beach, N.C., which was under a voluntary evacuation order, said they were largely unconcerned.
"This is nothing," said Todd Lengyeltoti, who came out to the shore to see the surf Friday. He paused before adding, "We hope."
Lengyeltoti, an artist, moved to North Carolina six months ago from Miami Beach, where he went through hurricanes in 2004 and 2008. His house is about three blocks from the beach, on a small rise, and Lengyeltoti said he thought it would be OK despite the storm surge.
"Living in Miami, you were used to this sort of thing," Lengyeltoti said.
But New Yorkers, less accustomed to the threat, wondered how to handle the storm, including what to do about their window air-conditioning units. Leave them be, Bloomberg advised.
In Bethany Beach, Del., local officials called property owners Friday afternoon to say there was a mandatory evacuation for anyone within three-quarters of a mile of a "major waterway."
Law enforcement officials were going door to door to enforce the evacuation, which takes effect at 9 a.m. Saturday. Businesses within the evacuation zone were ordered to close over the weekend. "They will be allowed to reopen once Irene has cleared our area," the call said.
Economists said the sputtering economy probably wouldn't be pushed into recession, as long as the effects of Irene weren't too bad.
"Even if it causes $10 billion in insured damages, that's a shock we can live with," Wells Fargo Securities senior economist Mark Vitner said in a phone interview Friday.
However, the fragile economy can't handle many big surprises, he said: "If it causes $50 billion and shuts down the East Coast and sends the cost of oil soaring, that may be too much of a shock."
Since economic growth has slowed to less than 2 percent, "we just don't have that much margin for error," Vitner said. "Any unforeseen shock, that might be enough to push us into recession.
"Absent that, we see the economy continuing to grow."
There's often a temporary economic disruption during a storm, but they often result in a mini-building boom, said Nariman Behravesh, the chief economist of IHS Global Insight. That could be good for the economy, he said.
"There's a hit, but then it bounces back," he said. "This could up being a nice little boost for the construction industry, which has been on the ropes since the housing crisis."
(Ely Portillo of The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, Curtis Morgan of The Miami Herald, Alan Wolf of The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer and Tish Wells and David Lightman contributed to this report.)
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