WASHINGTON (AP) ? President Barack Obama offered moral support Saturday to federal emergency management workers hunkered down for Hurricane Irene’s weekend march up the East Coast and 14,000 active-duty and National Guard troops were put on standby for post-storm relief work.
“Everybody here, you guys are doing a great job,” Obama told dozens of workers on a visit to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s command center. Fully activated and operating around the clock, the center helps coordinate the federal response to natural disasters.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, meanwhile, told 6,500 active-duty troops to be prepared to help after Irene passes. Panetta issued a prepare-to-deploy order for troops from all branches of the military after affected states requested possible help, spokesman George Little said.
At least 7,500 National Guard troops also were prepared to deploy if needed, said Maj. Gen. David Harris, director of operations for the National Guard Bureau.
At the National Response Coordination Center, Obama said he was keeping close watch on the storm. The White House said top aides had updated him on Irene before the visit to FEMA headquarters and that he asked to be informed of the latest developments.
Obama said getting through the storm will be a “tough slog,” but he only had praise for the federal effort so far. He said he was encouraged during conversations Friday with governors and mayors from affected states when he asked what else they needed to prepare.
“There was quiet on the phone and that was a good sign,” he told the workers, who sat at computer stations clad in red or blue vests.
“This is still obviously going to be a touch-and-go situation for a lot of communities, but knowing that they’ve got an outstanding response team like this will make all the difference in the world,” he said. “Especially because you all are not going to get any sleep for the next 72 hours or so.”
Obama was accompanied by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Brennan, his assistant for homeland security.
The president shortened his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., and returned to Washington late Friday, several hours earlier than planned, because of the storm.
Obama also participated in a daily video conference at FEMA with federal and state emergency management officials. He said flooding and loss of power were the big concerns.
“It sounds like that’s going to be an enormous strain on a lot of states,” Obama said during a brief portion of the conference that was open to the media.
He said the government is aiming to be as effective in Irene’s aftermath as it has been with its preparations before the storm became a threat to the U.S.
“It’s going to be a long 72 hours and obviously a lot of families are going to be affected,” the president said.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
Darlene Superville can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap .