WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Barack Obama offered moral support Saturday to federal emergency management workers hunkered down for Hurricane Irene's weekend march up the East Coast and 14,000 active-duty and National Guard troops were put on standby for post-storm relief work.
Obama was accompanied by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and John Brennan, his assistant for homeland security.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, meanwhile, told 6,500 active-duty troops to be prepared to help after Irene passes. Panetta issued a prepare-to-deploy order for troops from all branches of the military after affected states requested possible help, spokesman George Little said.
The troops could be used for tasks such as search-and-rescue, medical help, engineering, construction and transportation, said Army Lt Col. Elizabeth Robbins, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
At least 7,500 National Guard troops also were prepared to deploy if needed, said Maj. Gen. David Harris, director of operations for the National Guard Bureau.
At the National Response Coordination Center, Obama said he was keeping close watch on the storm. The White House said top aides had updated him on Irene before the visit to FEMA headquarters.
Obama held a conference call Saturday evening with top members of his administration including Vice President Joe Biden, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Fugate, Brennan and Napolitano. The White House said the president asked to be kept apprised of developments throughout the night and said that he wants the group to re-convene Sunday morning.
At the coordination center, Obama said getting through the storm will be a “tough slog,'' but he only had praise for the federal effort so far. He said he was encouraged during conversations Friday with governors and mayors from affected states when he asked what else they needed to prepare.
“There was quiet on the phone and that was a good sign,'' he told the workers, who sat at computer stations clad in red or blue vests.
“This is still obviously going to be a touch-and-go situation for a lot of communities, but knowing that they've got an outstanding response team like this will make all the difference in the world,'' he said. “Especially because you all are not going to get any sleep for the next 72 hours or so.''
The president shortened his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and returned to Washington late Friday, several hours earlier than planned, because of the storm.
Obama also participated in a daily video conference at FEMA with federal and state emergency management officials. He said flooding and loss of power were the big concerns.
“It sounds like that's going to be an enormous strain on a lot of states,'' Obama said during a brief portion of the conference that was open to the media.
He said the government is aiming to be as effective in Irene's aftermath as it has been with its preparations before the storm became a threat to the U.S.
“It's going to be a long 72 hours and obviously a lot of families are going to be affected,'' the president said.
Separately Saturday, a group of House Republican lawmakers called on the administration to replenish a FEMA disaster relief account that has less than a $1 billion. The lawmakers, including House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., contend that level of funding will make it harder for the government to provide financial aid to people and communities harmed by natural disasters, including Irene.
A FEMA spokeswoman said the agency will have the money it needs because it has begun restricting funding on longer-term repair and rebuilding projects from prior storms to focus on more urgent and immediate disaster needs.