WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 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.