Obama leaving Vineyard to oversee hurricane preparations

President Obama speaks today about Hurricane Irene outside his vacation house in Chilmark.
President Obama speaks today about Hurricane Irene outside his vacation house in Chilmark. –Carolyn Kaster/AP

WASHINGTON – President Obama and the first family are cutting their vacation short, leaving Martha’s Vineyard today as the East Coast prepares for a major hurricane that is scheduled to begin hitting the North Carolina coast tomorrow.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that Obama would leave tonight, ahead of his previously scheduled departure tomorrow. Aides later announced that first lady Michelle Obama and the couple’s two daughters, Malia and Sasha, would join him.

They were not scheduled to arrive back at the White House until very late in the evening, extending their planned nine-day break as much as possible.

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The announcement came after Obama warned Americans to take the hurricane warnings seriously and make the proper preparations.

“I cannot stress this highly enough: If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now,’’ the president said in a press statement outside his vacation house in Chilmark. “Don’t wait. Don’t delay. We all hope for the best, but we have to be prepared for the worst. All of us have to take this storm seriously.’’

Obama, following a conference call with senior members of his emergency response team, said he spoke with governors and big-city mayors up the Eastern Seaboard about the hurricane.

He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency had teams spread along the East Coast, supplied with millions of liters of water, millions of meals, and tens of thousands of cots and blankets.

The American Red Cross had already started preparing shelters in North Carolina and other states, but the president cautioned that it may take time for first responders to get to areas most impacted.

“So the more you can do to be prepared now, making a plan, make a supply kit , know your evacuation route, follow instructions of your local officials, the quicker we can focus our resources after the storm on those who need help the most,’’ Obama said. “All indications point to this being a historic hurricane.’’

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In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick announced this afternoon that he had declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard as the state braces for the hurricane. Five hundred guardsmen have already been activated, and another 2,000 will be activated by tomorrow morning.

Obama’s decision to return to Washington also comes after a week in which he was criticized for taking a vacation on a wealthy island at a time when the economy is struggling.

Republican hopeful Mitt Romney, who had been one of those critics, had been scheduled to be on the island tomorrow for a fund-raiser. That fund-raiser has been canceled, according to a campaign spokeswoman.

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