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With Irene looming, region gets ready

Residents rush to stock up and boat owners haul vessels out with the hurricane expected to hit New England Sunday

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By Peter Schworm and Martine Powers
Globe Staff / August 26, 2011

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The region braced for the most menacing storm in years as Hurricane Irene gained steam and churned north, with residents and emergency officials busily preparing for the threat of widespread power outages, coastal flooding, and potential evacuations.

While the Category 3 storm’s precise path remained unclear, forecasters said it could become the first hurricane to strike the region in two decades. Federal emergency workers deployed rations to the area, boaters dry-docked their vessels, and residents across the state rushed to grocery and hardware stores for emergency supplies.

The Red Sox moved a planned Sunday game to tomorrow. Governor Deval Patrick scheduled a press conference for this afternoon to detail the latest preparations.

“We’re preparing for the worst,’’ said Peter Judge of the state’s emergency management agency, which was closely tracking the storm yesterday. “But even a near miss is going to have a major impact.’’

In Western Massachusetts, which could receive the worst of the storm, a main electric company warned customers of the possibility of weeklong outages and recruited crews from the Midwest in anticipation of heavy workloads repairing downed power lines. Coast Guard pilots flew over remote fishing grounds, sending warnings about the magnitude of the storm.

Forecasters said the massive, slow-moving storm, packing sustained winds of 115 miles per hour, would probably reach North Carolina tomorrow morning, then hug the coast through the mid-Atlantic states before arriving in New England Sunday.

Heavy rainfall, however, will begin tomorrow night, and high surf and deadly rip currents will also arrive in advance of the storm.

While Irene’s wrath is likely to weaken as it moves north through colder water, forecasters warned it could still cause extensive damage in the Northeast Corridor and urged the public to be prepared.

“It’s a very large hurricane, it’s not going to weaken very rapidly, and its effects are going to be felt along a very wide area,’’ said James Franklin of the National Hurricane Center. “The entire East Coast will feel a significant impact from Irene.’’

Even with Irene days away, hundreds of Cape Cod residents hoisted their boats from the harbor and put them in dry storage.

“I’m always nervous with a storm like this,’’ said Kevin McCann, who had his Sabre 32 sailboat lifted from its moorings at the Hyannis Yacht Club. “You’d be a fool not to be nervous with Mother Nature.’’

As the National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for the North Carolina coast, which has been struck by several severe hurricanes over the years, thousands of tourists and coastal residents evacuated the area. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie declared a state of emergency and urged people to leave the shore.

“Do not try to ride it out,’’ he said at a press conference. “It is not the smart thing to do.’’

Forecasters said the storm could bring 10 inches of rain to the mid-Atlantic states and create huge waves, raising water levels by as much as 10 feet. With the storm still days away, it was uncertain how intense the storm will be when it reaches New England. But forecasters said to expect severe and perhaps dangerous weather.

“The entire Eastern Seaboard, including all the major metropolitan areas, are going to see impacts ranging from very heavy rain to very high winds, and along coastal areas, storm-surge flooding,’’ said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center.

The dire predictions were especially worrisome to residents in Marshfield, where workers were racing to reinforce a 370-foot stretch of seawall that was just 60 percent finished.

Forecasters said that the hurricane’s projected path could quickly change and that its unusual size made it likely that millions of people would feel its impact. Yesterday, the storm’s hurricane-force winds extended 70 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds reached out nearly 300 miles.

“The wind field of the storm is very large,’’ said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “You get 50-to-60-mile-per-hour winds blowing for hours, that’s going to cause a lot of damage.’’

Forecasters also warned of the possibility the storm could spawn weak tornadoes.

The last hurricane to make landfall in Massachusetts was Hurricane Bob, a Category 2 storm that hit New England on Aug. 19, 1991, almost exactly two decades ago. The storm killed six people in Connecticut and caused $680 million of damage in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

In Boston, city officials were closely monitoring the storm and will decide whether to open designated shelters as it approaches.

“We’re preparing, and that’s the same thing we’re asking the public to do,’’ said Donald McGough, director of the mayor’s office of emergency management.

Many residents had taken that advice to heart. At the Home Depot store in Dorchester, generators were already sold out, and flashlights were going fast.

Michael Iovanna, a department supervisor, said he was coordinating with other stores to acquire more supplies and is considering staying open 24 hours until the storm.

“We’re doing our best to keep up with the demand,’’ he said.

In Quincy, Patricia Ostrem, 60, snagged two flashlights in case the storm knocks the power out. In 1985, she recalled, Hurricane Gloria toppled a tree onto her car and broke a window in her house. But no power would be worse.

“No power and no coffee in the morning - that’s my primary concern,’’ she said.

David Graves, a spokesman for National Grid, said crews would be out in force in anticipation of downed power lines.

“For the weekend, it’s all hands on deck,’’ he said.

On Beacon Hill, matches, lanterns, duct tape, and battery-powered radios, even rope for boat moorings, were flying off the shelves.

“They’re bracing for the worst around here,’’ said Andrew Jason Christoffels, a manager at Charles Street Supply Co. & Hardware.

In Central Square in Cambridge, many customers were buying flashlights and batteries, but Aldo Aichfakir said people did not seem overly concerned.

“I don’t think people are worrying as much about this storm,’’ said Aichfakir, the general manager at Pills Hardware. “We’re used to being told we’re going to have something and then it doesn’t happen.’’

But on the water, people were treating the forecast seriously. Charles McLaughlin, a lawyer in Barnstable, made a reservation Tuesday at the Hyannis Marina to have his boat moved to land.

“It’s just the prudent thing to do with the storm coming this close,’’ he said.

At the marina, Rick Panton, a member of the dock staff, said he helped take out more than 50 boats yesterday.

“We’ve had to turn a lot of people away,’’ he said. “The boats just keep coming.’’

Most animals at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and the Stone Zoo in Stoneham already have indoor shelters. But zoo staff was not taking chances. A half-dozen zookeepers will ride out the storm at the zoos to feed animals, repair fences, and cut down dangerous hanging branches, said John Linehan, president of Zoo New England.

If power goes out, they will be prepared with generators, since some animals are susceptible to small changes in temperature, like Lady Stanley, the bongo antelope born June 15, the day the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

“She’s a delicate little thing still,’’ he said.

David Abel and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff and correspondent Jaime Lutz contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.