Updated at 10:30 p.m.
Hurricane Irene appears headed towards the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions this weekend — areas that haven’t endured tropical storm-force winds and rain in years.
And the Federal Emergency Management Agency, panned by Southerners almost six years ago for its inept response to Hurricane Katrina, is reminding Americans up north that they should turn first to local and state authorities in advance of the storm.
“If the public’s seeing FEMA, it’s most likely if we’ve had impacts and we have requests for assistance,” the agency’s administrator, Craig Fugate , told reporters 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.”
President Obama, who is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard in the storm’s potential path, received an update on the storms from Fugate, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and other officials on Thursday morning.
In the Washington area, FEMA’s regional office is coordinating with the National Park Service and D.C.-area officials regarding any potential affects of the hurricane on Sunday’s planned dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Any final decisions on the event’s schedule will be made by the Park Service and District government, Fugate said.
FEMA serves as a support agency, called upon to provide supplies, expertise and eventually federal dollars only after state governors request assistance from the federal government. With a storm headed toward heavily populated urban areas unaccustomed to hurricanes — Washington, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Providence and Boston among others — there is concern that city dwellers may be unfamiliar with FEMA’s role.
“There’s hardly any excuse for people not to know that there’s a hurricane out there,” Fugate said.
The administrator, a former Florida emergency management official and avid user of social media (he’s @CraigatFEMA on Twitter), is crediting local officials and concerned residents in the storm’s wake for sharing information through local news outlets and social media.
“When Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and his team take time to talk about a storm in New York, that’s significant,” Fugate said. “Just looking at social media — at tweets on Irene and stuff like that — a lot of information is being shared. Hopefully people are taking the steps, but we’re seeing a lot of the official information, but also the general public taking that information and sending it to friends and family.”
“The hard thing is action,” Fugate said later, warning that if people are ordered to evacuate, they should move quickly, because “Delay can be deadly and you’ll run out of time and lose options.”
As The Post’s Capital Weather Gang is reporting, Irene is less than two days away from delivering a hard blow against most of the East Coast. Not only are severe impacts likely for coastal regions from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to New England, but interior sections of the mid-Atlantic, including Richmond, Washington and Baltimore, may also experience major effects from the storm.
Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center, said Irene’s path is mirroring similar courses taken by Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and hurricanes Carol and Edna in the 1950s. If the storms move inland, some areas could get 5 to 10 inches of rain, most likely causing significant flooding in some areas.
In anticipation, Fugate said his agency is predeploying resources and supplies — including tarps, baby formula and bottled water — to military bases in North Carolina, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“We’re busy,” Fugate said. And he’s likely to get much busier.
For Hurricane Irene resources, please visit wapo.st/ireneresources .
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost