New England braces for slap from Hurricane Irene

BOSTON Fri Aug 26, 2011 2:54pm EDT

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BOSTON (Reuters) - Not fooled by warm, sunny weather, New Englanders scurried on Friday to prepare for a potentially devastating hurricane on track to pummel the Northeast United States over the weekend.

While some residents flocked to the supermarket for bottled water and nonperishable food, others rushed to the local hardware store as Hurricane Irene churned northward.

"Our number of customers has tripled in the last day or two as people actually said, 'Wow, this thing is going to happen,'" said Jack Gurnon, owner of a hardware store in Boston's affluent Beacon Hill neighborhood.

State officials throughout the region moved into high gear to prepare for expected flooding, downed trees and possible downed powerlines by calling up members of the National Guard and putting state police officers on standby.

In Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency, joining Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Flashlights, batteries and tape for windows were flying off shelves, but Gurnon said people were worried about flooding and had been scooping up sump pumps as well.

Heavy rainfall, more than 10 inches in some locations, is likely to pummel southern New England on Saturday and Sunday, along with the possibility of coastal flooding, according to the National Weather Service.

Irene would be the first hurricane to make landfall in New England since 1991's Hurricane Bob, blamed for several deaths in the region.

High winds could also result in significant and prolonged power outages, said Bill Simpson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.

"All parts of southern New England could see potentially hurricane-force winds, with gusts around 80 mph," he said.

"We have a very clear sense of what is coming and we are ready for it," Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told a news conference after having talked by telephone to President Barack Obama.

Obama will end his vacation on Martha's Vineyard on Friday evening, one day earlier than planned, and return to Washington in advance of Irene's landfall.

A hurricane watch was issued for much of coastal southern New England including Cape Cod and its neighboring islands in Massachusetts, along with parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

A tropical storm watch is in effect farther inland, and flooding is a concern for New Hampshire and Vermont.

WEDDING GOES ON

Despite the dire forecast, a wedding party due to arrive on Saturday at a waterfront colonial inn in Stonington, Connecticut, was sticking to its schedule.

"They are coming, no matter what," said Anne Henson, manager of the Inn at Stonington.

Henson expected people to stay past a planned Sunday departure and said she had plenty of wine and cheese on hand to feed the group.

Connecticut has already declared a state of emergency to handle the severe weather.

At Mystic Seaport, a popular "living history" museum in Connecticut that depicts 19th century New England seacoast life, staff members were hauling parts of the collections to higher ground. The museum will be closed on Saturday and Sunday as staffers load up sandbags.

"Our primary responsibility at this time is to protect our collection," said Mystic Seaport president Steve White. "So much of what we have here is irreplaceable and we need some time to make sure it will survive any kind of storm intact."

Boston baseball fans will be treated to a double-header of games on Saturday after the Red Sox pushed a scheduled Sunday outing against the Oakland Athletics to Saturday.

On Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, islands off the coast of Cape Cod, many vacationers fled ahead of the storm.

"People are leaving the island quickly," said Fishbones Grille general manager David Henry on Martha's Vineyard.

In Rhode Island, the Block Island Ferry planned to stop running between the vacation spot and the mainland on Saturday afternoon. It has deployed more boats to manage the throngs of people trying to get off the island, a ferry spokesman said.

"I want to stress that this is a major storm," Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee said, adding "Individual preparation is essential."

(Reporting by Lauren Keiper, Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Toni Clarke; Editing by Ros Krasny and Jerry Norton)

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