Tens of millions of people in the eastern United States are bracing for Hurricane Irene, which forecasters say could be the biggest storm to strike the area in more than half a century. It brings the threat of heavy wind, rain and flooding after punishing the Caribbean late Thursday with winds as high as 185 kilometers per hour.
NOAA video on Hurricane Irene's path
U.S. weather forecasters say they expect Hurricane Irene to affect some 65 million people along the east coast in the coming days.
State of Emergency
The governors of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have all declared states of emergency in order to free up resources for disaster relief.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Irene has slightly weakened, with maximum sustained winds of 175 kilometers an hour, but it remains a dangerous category two storm on a five-point scale measuring a storm's intensity and potential destructive power. Forecasters expect it to strengthen as it nears the North Carolina coast.
Irene has killed at least one person in Puerto Rico and two in the Dominican Republic.
American Red Cross spokesman Chris Osborne describes the enormity of the storm, speaking with VOA by phone outside late Thursday from the North Carolina coast.
"This hurricane stands to possibly affect the entire eastern seaboard. The Red Cross has already prepositioned more than 200 emergency response vehicles and lots of volunteers, dozens, I should even say hundreds of volunteers. And so certainly we are looking at this, monitoring it minute by minute, hour by hour," he said.
What you should do
Osborne says his organization has warned everyone in the storm's path to get a disaster kit, make a family emergency plan and listen to local officials regarding evacuations.
He says the Red Cross is hoping for the best, while expecting the worst, and that it is positioned to respond to any affected areas.
"One of the good things about a hurricane is that we consider it a slow-moving disaster, which means that we have a little lead time to get ready and prep and get people and supplies in the right place. We will be here until the job is done," he said.
Hurricane Irene is the second natural disaster to affect the eastern U.S. within the past week. On Tuesday, the biggest earthquake in more than a century struck the region, shocking many residents who now find themselves in the path of the storm.
Although damage was minimal in the 5.8 magnitude quake, authorities were concerned that high mobile phone usage jammed networks causing service to fail for many in the Washington area.
Despite this threat, Osborne says his organization still is encouraging people to use its website and mobile phone services for help during the storm.
"We know that cell phone service can sometimes be sketchy, but a lot of times, cell phone service is the quickest thing to get back up and running so that's always a good alternative to communicate with the Red Cross and find out how we can help," he said.
Irene is the first hurricane to seriously threaten the United States in three years.
The head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency predicts the storm will have an impact "well inland," both from flooding and winds, which can topple trees and cause power outages. Authorities also warn that recent heavy rains across much of the east coast could compound the flooding.
In the meantime, Hurricane Irene has disrupted planned events up-and-down the east coast, including the dedication in Washington of the new memorial to the famed U.S. civil rights leader, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which had been scheduled for Sunday.