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 EDT 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 is 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."