Despite Tropical Storm Irene's weakened punch, President Barack Obama urged those in its path to stay vigilant and warned that the storm's impact would continue to be felt for some time.
"This is not over," Obama said in a Sunday afternoon statement from the Rose Garden.
With Irene having unleashed furious wind and rain as it carved its way along the East Coast, the president said emergency officials were most concerned about lengthy power outages and flooding as swollen rivers begin to crest. He urged the public to heed the warnings of local officials in the coming days, and said his administration would continue working with cities and states to ensure they were prepared to respond.
"The impacts of this storm will be felt for some time. And the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer," said Obama, flanked by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate.
Seeking to show presidential leadership amid the storm, the White House added the Rose Garden statement to Obama's schedule late Sunday afternoon, after Irene had significantly weakened. Most areas, including New York City, appeared to have escaped with less damage than first expected.
The administration has made a concerted effort to present Obama as a president fully engaged in every aspect of the storm, releasing several photos and readouts of Obama's briefings on Irene as it approached the U.S.
The president cut his Martha's Vineyard vacation short by about 12 hours to return to Washington ahead of the storm's arrival. And as the storm made landfall in North Carolina Saturday, Obama visited FEMA's command center in Washington.
While Irene was far weaker than expected, at least 18 people died in the storm and early damage estimates were in the billions of dollars. But Obama said the toll could have been much higher had it not been for preparation and coordination by FEMA and other emergency personnel.
"This has been an exemplary effort of how good government at every level should be responsive to people's needs and work to keep them safe and protect and promote the nation's prosperity," the president said.
With more flooding possible, government officials warned it will take several days before they can fully assess the storm's damage.
Fugate, the FEMA director, said teams first checked on damage in North Carolina, where reports are mostly of flooding, downed trees and damaged highways, and were continuing to move through other affected states as Irene headed north toward Canada.
Fugate said FEMA will work closely with the White House to determine what type of funds may be needed to help cities and states recover.
Obama has already issued emergency declarations for most of the states hit by Irene, including North Carolina, Virginia and New York, in order to make federal resources available to support response efforts.
The White House said Obama was being briefed twice on the storm Sunday, once in the morning and again in the evening. Napolitano, Vice President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner were among the top administration officials who took part in the video conferences.
Aides wouldn't say Sunday whether Obama had any plans to visit areas affected by the storm. He is scheduled to travel Tuesday to Minnesota to speak at the American Legion's national convention.
Text of statements by President Barack Obama, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate on Hurricane Irene, as provided by the White House:
OBAMA: Good afternoon, everybody. I'm joined today by my Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and Administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, to provide a brief update on our ongoing response efforts to Hurricane Irene.
First, let me say that this is a storm that has claimed lives. Our thoughts and prayers are with those who've lost loved ones and those whose lives have been affected by the storm. You need to know that America will be with you in your hour of need.
While the storm has weakened as it moves north, it remains a dangerous storm that continues to produce heavy rains. One of our chief concerns before Irene made landfall was the possibility of significant flooding and widespread power outages. And we've been getting reports of just that from our state and local partners. Many Americans are still at serious risk of power outages and flooding, which could get worse in the coming days as rivers swell past their banks.
So I want people to understand that this is not over. Response and recovery efforts will be an ongoing operation, and I urge Americans in affected areas to continue to listen for the guidance and direction of their state and local officials.
Before the storm made landfall, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA worked very closely with our state and local partners, as well as volunteer organizations, to pre-position supplies and teams of first responders along the hurricane's projected track. And the American Red Cross opened shelters in communities across the region. I want to thank those Americans for their work over the past several days, which has saved lives and property up and down the East Coast.
We continue to have search and rescue personnel on alert, as well as water, food and other needed resources. And moving forward, FEMA is working with state and local responders to assess damage and assist in the recovery.
I do want to underscore that the impacts of this storm will be felt for some time, and the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer. Power may be out for days in some areas, and we will support our state and local partners in every way that we can as they work to restore power in those areas.
So I'm going to make sure that DHS and FEMA and other federal agencies are doing everything in their power to help folks on the ground. I continue to meet regularly with Secretary Napolitano and Administrator Fugate and the other members of my team to assess our response and ensure that we have what we need in place.
As I've told governors and mayors from across the affected area, if they need something, I want to know about it. We're going to make sure that we respond as quickly and effectively as possible. And we're going to keep it up as long as hurricane season continues.
Finally, while we're not out of the woods yet, I want to thank everybody at the federal, state and local levels who have worked so hard to respond to this storm. This has been an exemplary effort of how good government at every level should be responsive to people's needs, work to keep them safe, and protect and promote the nation's prosperity.
I want to thank scientists who provide the information necessary for governors and mayors to make sound decisions, disaster response experts who made sure we were as prepared as possible, to National Guard members and first responders who risked their lives to ensure their fellow citizens' safety — all ordinary Americans who love their country and volunteered to do their part.
Above all, the past few days have been a shining example of how Americans open our homes and our hearts to those in need and pull together in tough times to help our fellow citizens prepare for and respond to, as well as recover from, extraordinary challenges, whether natural disasters or economic difficulties. That's what makes the United States of America a strong and resilient nation, a strong and resilient people. And I want to thank all who have been involved very much.
Now I'd like to ask Secretary Napolitano and Administrator Fugate to say a few words. Janet.
NAPOLITANO: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. And I'd like to echo the President's comments about the ongoing threat from Hurricane Irene. We will be dealing with the impacts of this storm over the coming days, and I urge all Americans to take prudent steps to stay safe.
Now, dealing with a storm like this requires a three-phase approach: preparation, response and recovery. Some states and communities are still currently responding, while others are beginning to assess their damages and plan for recovery.
As response assets are freed up in states already impacted by the storm, we will begin moving them to help with ongoing response, and we will be working with all other states throughout the recovery period.
I'd also like to thank the entire team that is working so hard to respond to Irene. And that team includes the American people. Thanks to all of you who prepared, especially those who followed local evacuation orders. Your actions helped protect not only your families and minimize loss of life, but also freed up local first responders to help those who needed help the most.
Now, the Department of Homeland Security will continue working to coordinate the federal response through FEMA, making sure that the entire federal family is working as one to support the affected states. So, with that, I'd like to personally thank Craig Fugate, who is my director of FEMA, and the entire FEMA team, who have been leading this effort. So, Craig.
FUGATE: Well, thank you, Mr. President and Secretary. When you look at these disasters, a lot of times you try to find a place of damage that tells everybody the story about what's happened. But in this hurricane that's hard to do because I'm pretty sure most of you forgot Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were first impacted, and we had people who lost their homes and are currently dealing with recovery in Puerto Rico. And now we repeat that process in North Carolina, Virginia and up the coast as flooding is still ongoing.
When a disaster comes off the news and nobody is paying attention, we still don't go home. We're still working hard across this country, from tornadoes and floods that have already struck this country as well as to new damages. And that's part of the mission we have at FEMA, to work with our state and local partners, to work with the private sector, volunteer and faith-based community, but most of all, as the Secretary and President said, the American people who we work for. We're there for the survivors. We'll be there through the length of these disasters. And, again, we're not going home just because it won't be on the news. We've now got a lot of work ahead of us and we're going to be there to support local communities and states as they begin the recovery.
OBAMA: Okay. Thank you very much, everybody. Craig and Janet will continue to keep everybody posted throughout the week. As we have already said, there are a lot of communities that are still being affected. We are particularly concerned about flooding because the continuing rains can end up having an impact well beyond the immediate center of the storm.
And so we're going to continue to monitor that carefully. Assessments are already being done in North Carolina and Virginia. There are still search and rescue teams that are operating throughout the region. And we will continue to keep the American people posted throughout our efforts not only with respect to response but also with respect to recovery.
So thanks very much, everybody.