Hurricane Irene could bring Katrina-style flooding to coast, FEMA warns

Updated at 12 p.m. ET

As Hurricane Irene nears the East Coast, officials are warning the storm's impact could be damaging enough to the coast to draw comparisons to Hurricane Katrina.

"I think when people think of Katrina, they think of the homes that were destroyed with the flooding, and that may be something we see in the storm surge areas along the coast," Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said in a press conference today, in response to a question whether the approaching storm could be as bad as the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans.

While FEMA was criticized for its response to Katrina, officials say the agency is well prepared for Irene. Its management assistance teams are on the ground in states that will be hit the by the storm, according to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and their presence "will make sure we are seamless in our response and recovery," she said.

FEMA has more than $900 million in its disaster relief fund, though the agency is also addressing other ongoing disaster areas, including Puerto Rico, which was already hit by Hurricane Irene.

"We are going to have the resources we need to respond to this hurricane," Napolitano said.

In a statement today, President Obama said indications point to Irene "being a historic hurricane" and an "extremely dangerous storm." The president said he spoke with the senior members of his emergency response team to make sure they're bringing all federal resources to bear and deploying them properly.

Currently, FEMA is primarily focused on evacuations, Fugate said.

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"One thing we can change the outcome on is loss of life," he said. "All of the preparation will be in vain if people don't heed those evacuation orders."

Even farther from the coast, residents should be prepared for flash flooding, officials said, as well as strong, sustained winds and power outages.

"The window for preparation is quickly closing," Napolitano said.

The Homeland Security chief said she spoke with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday, and the city is already evacuating some low-lying areas and positioning ambulances in anticipation of having to help people move out of the way. Some decisions, such as whether or not to close the subway system, will be up to Bloomberg, she said.

American Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern added that her organization is "better prepared than ever" for the storm and commended Napolitano and Fugate for their preparation.

"If you were going to go toe-to-toe with Mother Nature, you couldn't ask for a better set of partners," she said.

The American Red Cross has over 200 emergency response vehicles they are sending to the East Coast, she said, to distribute relief items like meals and buckets. The organization has 60,000 ready-to-eat meals to hand out in Virginia and another 60,000 for Massachusetts.

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