Irene Downgraded to Tropical Storm But Still a Threat

Feds say residents should shore up homes, store supplies, and monitor radio, TV for info

SUNDAY, Aug. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Experts at the National Hurricane Center on Sunday downgraded Hurricane Irene to Tropical Storm status, with early reports from New York City showing less damage from the storm than had originally been feared.

Nevertheless, at least nine people are dead across the East Coast, nearly 2 million homes are without power and damage to property is continuing as Irene makes her slow progress north.

When Irene first made landfall in North Carolina early Saturday, officials at the NHC noted a slight weakening of wind speeds -- from over 100 mph down to about 90 mph -- and downgraded it to a Category 1 hurricane. At the time, experts said that demotion would not lessen the storm's impact on people and property, since Irene's huge size and slow rate of travel meant flooding could be severe.

"The emphasis for this storm is on its size and duration, not necessarily how strong the strongest winds are," National Hurricane Center expert Mike Brennan told the Associated Press.

Emergency officials in six states and New England had already told an estimated 55 million residents to brace for the worst this weekend, and over 2 million people have been told to move to safer areas. More than 1 million people in New Jersey, 315,000 in Maryland, 300,000 in North Carolina, 200,000 in Virginia and 100,000 in Delaware have been told to evacuate.

Early on Sunday New York City, its streets deserted and transit system closed, braced for the onslaught. But according to The New York Times, as of late morning there were no reports of major damage (such as damage to skyscrapers) and flooding so far has been "limited."

However, high winds, downed trees and flying debris have posed dangers to those in Irene's path. According to media reports, at least five people have died so far across a number of states after trees fell on them or their homes. Two others have died after making the fatal decision to surf or play in the waves churned up by the storm.

Power outages are widespread and already affect nearly 2 million homes, the AP added. Over 900,000 customers in Virginia and North Carolina have lost electricity, supplier Dominion Resources said, while Baltmore Gas & Electric said that nearly a quarter-million of its customers are without power.

The current forecast places Irene over northern New England by Monday morning, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

President Barack Obama has declared federal emergencies in eight states ranging from North Carolina to New Hampshire, freeing up government support for help after the storm. According to the Times, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has 18 disaster-response teams in readiness, and over 100,000 National Guard members are also available to help.

But there is much people still in the path of the storm can do to prepare. Steps that residents should take include putting together an emergency kit with 72 hours' worth of food and water, developing a family communications plan, and listening to the radio or TV for information about risks and evacuations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an alert Friday telling residents to have a plan for storing emergency medications and medical supplies safely, particularly those people with health concerns or those in areas where the power goes out.

Only lifesaving drugs should be taken if the container is contaminated; all other medications should be thrown away if they are exposed to contaminated flood water. Insulin loses its potency in warm temperatures, so try to keep it as cool as possible, the alert said. If you store it on ice, do not let it freeze, however.

If you have a "life-supporting" or "life-sustaining" device that depends on electricity, call your doctor's office for information on how to maintain function in the event of a loss of power.

Should flooding occur, do not consume any food that may have come into contact with floodwater. Check with your local health department to assess if tap water is safe to drink -- if it is not, drink bottled water or boil water for one minute before drinking.

Other federal government recommendations if the hurricane is likely to strike your area include:

  • Ensure a supply of water for sanitary purposes such as cleaning and flushing toilets. Fill the bathtub and other large containers with water.
  • Close storm shutters and secure outdoor objects or bring them indoors. If you don't have shutters, board up windows with 5/8-inch marine plywood, cut to fit and ready to install. Putting tape on windows does not prevent them from breaking.
  • To reduce roof damage, install straps or additional clips to securely fasten your roof to the frame structure.
  • Clear clogged rain gutters so they won't overflow.
  • Turn off propane tanks.
  • If you have a boat, moor it.
  • Turn off utilities if told to do so. Otherwise, set the refrigerator thermostat to its coldest level and keep its door(s) closed.

People should evacuate under the following conditions:

  • If you are told to do so by local authorities. Follow their instructions.
  • If you live in a mobile home or temporary structure.
  • If you live in a high-rise building. Hurricane winds are stronger at higher elevations.
  • If you live on the coast, on a floodplain, near a river, or on an inland waterway.
  • If you feel you are in danger.

If you are unable to evacuate, go to your safe room. If you do not have a safe room, you should:

  • Stay indoors during the storm and keep away from windows and glass doors.
  • Secure and brace external doors and close all interior doors.
  • Keep curtains and blinds closed.
  • Take refuge in a small interior room, closet or hallway on the lowest level. Lie on the floor under a table or another sturdy object.
  • Don't be fooled if there is a lull in the storm. It could be the eye of the storm, which will be followed by a resumption of extreme winds.

More information

The U.S. government's Ready America website has more about staying safe during a hurricane.

Robert Preidt SOURCES: U.S. National Weather Service; Federal Emergency Management Agency; U.S. Food and Drug Administration; New York Times, Associated Press

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