WASHINGTON — As Hurricane Irene gathers strength in the Caribbean with a U.S. landfall likely over the weekend, North Carolina finds itself once again in the path of a storm, and in the position of first responder.
Whether the state gets a direct hit from Irene or not, North Carolina disaster managers have a lot of experience dealing with storms and their aftermath, and that could benefit residents not only in the state, but also in areas along the entire East Coast.
"We're prepared," Gov. Bev Perdue said. "We have the best system in America."
A series of major hurricanes, starting with Hugo in 1989, gave North Carolina plenty of practice at emergency response. Hurricanes Bertha and Fran struck twin blows in 1996, followed by Bonnie in 1998 and Floyd in 1999. Another storm, Isabel, struck in 2003.
"I'm more comfortable with our preparedness now than I was 15 years ago," said Ryan Boyles, the North Carolina state climatologist.
Should Irene smack into the mid-Atlantic or Northeast instead, North Carolina officials said the state would be ready to provide its expertise, and its hospital beds, even for patients from several states away.
"We operate on the assumption that any major calamity on the East Coast could affect us," said Dalton Sawyer, the director of emergency preparedness for the University of North Carolina Health Care system. "If we're needed, we can offer whatever assistance is available."
Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, said the state had sent emergency personnel nationwide this year to assist in other disasters, such as Western wildfires and Midwest floods.
"We've got some really good teams," she said.
Perdue said the Red Cross, the National Guard and the state Highway Patrol were ready for the storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has supply teams stationed in North Carolina with water, generators, tarps, food and baby formula. The Pentagon has designated Fort Bragg, N.C., as the base for FEMA's response to Irene.
As of midday Wednesday, Irene was moving northwest across the Bahamas with sustained winds of near 115 mph, making it a Category 3 storm. The National Hurricane Center in Miami forecast the storm to gather strength Thursday and become a Category 4, with sustained winds of more than 130 mph.
Though Irene's projected path has shifted east of coastal North Carolina, experts warned that the storm could produce damaging winds and flooding.
"If you were a betting person, it looks like it won't make landfall," said Chip Konrad, the director of the Southeast Regional Climate Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. "That's really good news in a sense. But even with that track off the coast, there will be strong winds."
Bill Read, the director of the National Hurricane Center, said the storm could bring tropical-force winds to the Outer Banks as early as Saturday.
FEMA director Craig Fugate said Irene threatened residents along the entire East Coast.
"Even though it's a Category 3 and referred to as a 'major hurricane,' I've never heard of a minor hurricane," he said. "Even tropical force winds can cause damages and power outages well away from the center of circulations."
Konrad said the storm could affect a wide swath.
"Right now, Irene is really intensifying," he said. "She is large, and the models predict her to get larger."
While officials on most of North Carolina's barrier islands were standing by Wednesday, the most vulnerable, Ocracoke, began evacuating tourists, with residents expected to follow Thursday. Ocracoke, which has 800 full-time inhabitants, is only accessible by ferry.
Perdue said officials didn't want to take any chances with the safety of residents and visitors, but also didn't want to evacuate coastal areas prematurely during the last 10 days of the summer tourist season.
"Evacuation is a local government decision," she said. "We don't force it on a state level."
Perdue urged residents to prepare themselves. She recommended a three-day supply of food and water, updated emergency kits and family evacuation plans.
"The best planning goes on at the household level," Boyles said. "The next 48 hours would be a great time to sit down and touch base with family members."
If the evacuation order comes, Sawyer said, people should heed it for their own safety and let emergency workers do their job.
"Rescue is dangerous by nature, but the last thing we want to do is put (first responders) in more danger," he said. "When people ignore evacuation orders, that's what they're doing."
James Lee Witt, who was the FEMA director under President Bill Clinton, said that most states in the storm's path knew what to expect.
"Because of 9/11, a lot of states and local governments are better prepared," he said.
But Irene could slam areas farther up the Atlantic coast that are unaccustomed to such storms.
The last major hurricane to strike New England was Bob in 1991. It packed sustained winds of 75 mph to 100 mph and storm surges of 10 feet to 15 feet from Connecticut to Massachusetts. It killed six people and caused $680 million in damage.
"This isn't something they're used to seeing," Boyles said.
When a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck parts of the East Coast on Tuesday, it revealed the limitations of communications networks and potential evacuation routes.
Witt said the approaching storm could further test systems put in place after 9/11.
"The whole East Coast needs to be prepared to respond," he said.
(Erika Bolstad contributed to this article.)
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