Obama calls on residents in hurricane's path to prepare for worst

The federal government is taking the storm 'very seriously,' HHS Secretary Napolitano says.

This story has been updated.

President Obama called on all those in the path of oncoming Hurricane Irene to take precautions now. "Don't wait, don't delay, we all hope for the best and prepare for the worst," the president said on Friday, speaking from his vacation in Martha's Vineyard.

Obama said all indications point to Irene being "a historic hurricane.... I cannot stress this highly enough: if you are in the projected path of the hurricane, you have to take precautions now."

The president said he's been speaking to the governors of the states along the Eastern Seaboard. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed teams up and down the coast, Obama said, and has millions of liters of water, along with cots, blankets, and other emergency supplies.

But the president stressed the best course of action for anyone in harm's way is to get out.

"If you are given an evacuation order, please follow it," he said, adding that an aircraft carrier had been ordered out to sea on Thursday to avoid the approaching storm. The government, Obama said, has been preparing for Irene for more than a week.

Obama himself and the first family will cut their vacation short by several hours, leaving Friday night instead of Saturday morning, according to the White House.

Hurricane Irene has been downgraded to a Category 2 storm, but hurricane watches and warnings were posted for North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and New England. Residents have been put on notice to prepare for the worst.

On Friday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered an evacuation of city residents who live in low-lying areas-the first such evacuation in history. Public transportation in New York will begin an orderly shutdown at noon on Saturday.

Obama said he convened a conference call with senior members of his emergency management team earlier on Friday and "directed them to make sure that we are bringing all federal resources to bear and deploying them properly to cope not only with the storm but also its aftermath."

"I've also spoken this morning with governors and mayors of major metropolitan areas along the Eastern Seaboard to let them know that this administration is in full support of their efforts to prepare for this storm and stands ready to fully support their response efforts," he added.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told reporters on Friday that the federal government is taking the storm "very seriously." "This is a serious hurricane. It has already caused significant damage in Puerto Rico and elsewhere," she said.

Washington and the surrounding Virginia and Maryland areas should be prepared for power outages, heavy rain, strong winds and potential flash floods, said FEMA chief W. Craig Fugate. He said power outages could last days in more rural areas, adding that there could be flooding along the Potomac River.

The American Red Cross is also mobilizing its assets. Gail McGovern, Red Cross president and chief executive officer, said her organization is anticipating the storm will affect a "huge geographical area" and that it could take "weeks, maybe even months" to fully respond to damage and needs.

She said the Red Cross is ready to serve 250,000 meals a day, which could be increased to 1 million, and has 15,000 shelters in the affected area.