Coastal communities braced for possible storm surges and state emergency management officials handed out equipment to cities and towns Thursday as Massachusetts prepared for whatever Hurricane Irene might bring to the state.
Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said uncertainty over Irene's path and strength when it reaches New England — likely Sunday — is forcing them to prepare every region for the potential impact.
"This is a work in progress," he said.
Judge says Massachusetts residents shouldn't panic, but they should plan.
"Take all of these storms very, very seriously because some of the greatest flooding events the commonwealth has ever had have been associated just with tropical storms," Judge said.
The agency has been working with more than 300 community officials to help cities and towns make emergency plans. Officials are providing things like sandbags and radios to communities that are short on supplies.
"We want to make sure we have all our ducks in a row," Judge said.
The National Guard, Coast Guard and the American Red Cross have also joined the agency's operations center in Framingham.
Coastal communities are bracing for the storm.
"High surf, dangerous rip currents," said Benjamin Sipprell, of the National Weather Service, late Thursday morning. "We may be looking at conditions as far as storm surge possibilities with the onshore flow and the seas being pushed up against the eastern shoreline. We're going to have to look into coastal flooding and beach erosion."
In Scituate, where a December blizzard brought massive waves that breached a 30-foot section of seawall and flooded several homes, town officials are confident the shored up seawall can withstand the tidal surge the hurricane is expected to bring.
Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi says the wall has a temporary patch made of sand and armor stone while the permitting process for a permanent concrete patch is under way.
Boston area homeless shelters are warning clients about the impending weather.
"[Outreach teams] are already out there starting to alert people to the idea that this could be a very powerful storm," said Barbara Trevisan, of The Pine Street Inn. "And we'll be providing transportation to our shelters on Saturday."
Officials also worry the hurricane could cause further misery for victims of the June 1 tornadoes that devastated parts of western and central Massachusetts. Many buildings and homes are still damaged from those storms.
"The American Red Cross has contacted us regarding concern for some people who may have tarps on their roof and things like that," said Thomas Walsh, a spokesman for the Springfield mayor's office.
"Preparations will be made that if in fact we do need to open shelters in Springfield, they can be done on a moment's notice," Walsh said.
But Chris Kuczarski, an emergency planner in the city, said shelters could also be susceptible to wind damage and tornado victims might consider finding a new place to ride out Irene.
Utilities around the state also braced for the possibility of widespread power outages caused by high winds.
"We haven't seen a major land-falling hurricane in over 20 years, the last one of course being Bob in 1991," Sipprell said. "And if you kind of factor that in, the trees and the local foliage around the area are probably not prepared for such events."
Western Massachusetts Electric Co. said in a statement that it suspended all scheduled time off for employees and was lining up contractor crews to assist in restoring power if needed.
NSTAR is also increasing staff, putting all employees on call if there are widespread power outages. It will also relocate workers and staff to the hardest hit areas, the company said in a statement.
The storm is expected to disrupt ferry service to the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The Steamship Authority said Thursday that it anticipates ferries being suspended at some point during the day on Sunday, with service not resumed until sometime on Monday.
In the meantime, the agency said it would run extra ferry trips for those who want to get off the islands before the storm.
The White House said President Obama was being kept abreast of East Coast preparations for the hurricane as the first family continued its Martha's Vineyard vacation. So far, the president has not moved up his plans to leave the island on Saturday.
With reporting from The Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom
This article was originally published on August 25, 2011.
This program aired on August 25, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.