Southeast braces for Hanna as Ike strengthens

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WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) -- Some Southeastern states declared emergencies and officials urged residents to head inland Thursday as Tropical Storm Hanna headed toward the Atlantic coast, where it could bring high winds and rain from South Carolina all the way to Maine.

Meanwhile, disaster planners cast a wary eye to a suddenly ferocious-looking Hurricane Ike strengthening in the Atlantic. And with power outages and other problems from Hurricane Gustav still lingering in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief groups found themselves juggling responses to three storms.

Rain and wind from Hanna could start as early as Friday night in the South, where some residents shuttered houses and stocked up on food and sandbags, coastal parks closed and schools canceled events and changed sports schedules. Watches and warnings were issued from Georgia to near Atlantic City, N.J.

Officials did not order people from their homes in advance of the storm, which was expected to make landfall early Saturday. Forecasters said it was expected to strengthen only slightly, though it still could become a hurricane.

The governors of Virginia and North Carolina declared states of emergency, freeing up state resources for storm response. South Carolina opened several emergency shelters and restricted port hours and Gov. Mark Sanford urged people to leave flood-prone areas and mobile homes in two northern counties by Friday afternoon.

In North Carolina, officials planned to close ports Friday. Gov. Mike Easley urged residents to listen to forecasts because the path of the storm could change.

"No, you're not in the clear if you're not in the track we talked about today," he said. "You're in the clear after the storm goes through and didn't bother you. Everybody needs to pay attention."

Still, some coastal residents scoffed at the storm that killed at least 61 people in Haiti.

Instead, they turned to the next worry brewing in the Atlantic: Ike, which strengthened quickly from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane Wednesday.

Forecasters said it was too early to say if and where Ike might threaten land. FEMA was sending hundreds of truckloads of meals, water and other supplies to the East Coast, agency officials said, but also leaving significant resources on the Gulf Coast in case Ike heads there.

"Ike looks like it's a very, very dangerous storm," said FEMA Administrator David Paulison.

The latest storms come on the heels of Gustav, whose aftermath had Louisiana residents living in shelters and without power.

In 2004, Paulison, then the preparedness director of FEMA, said three major hurricanes in just over a month had strained - but did not ultimately hobble - the agency's resources and staffing.

On Thursday, FEMA officials said they prepared in advance for this season, sending teams to Louisiana while others planned for Hanna.

The American Red Cross was moving supplies, equipment and people into areas Hanna might hit. The organization also was borrowing money to cover expenses that could reach more than $70 million from feeding and sheltering people during Gustav. The organization will probably go deeper into debt as it prepares for the other storms threatening the United States, said Red Cross vice president Joseph Becker.

Hanna chugged just east of the Bahamas Thursday with winds near 65 mph. At 5 p.m. EDT, it was 625 miles south-southeast of Wilmington, N.C.

A tropical storm warning, meaning tropical storm conditions were expected within 24 hours, was issued from the Savannah River in Georgia north to the North Carolina/Virginia border.

A hurricane watch was issued for Edisto Beach, S.C., north to the Outer Banks of North Carolina near the Virginia border. Tropical storm watches were issued from the North Carolina/Virginia border north to Great Egg Inlet, N.J., and from the Savannah River south to Altamaha Sound, Ga. A watch means conditions are expected within 36 hours.

In North Myrtle Beach, S.C., few homes were boarded up, but vacationers hastily packed bags.

"We've seen people boarding up today and the Coast Guard helicopters flying overhead and decided it was time to go," said James Collins, of Cadillac, Mich.

Hundreds of miles north, emergency managers in New England also planned for Hanna, which forecasters said could hit this weekend with heavy rain and strong winds. In Providence, R.I., workers cleared storm drains and stocked up on sandbags and residents were urged to stock up on batteries and first aid supplies.

In Massachusetts, emergency managers also kept a close eye on the storm track.

"If nothing else it's a good dress rehearsal for Ike if Ike were to come," said Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

In Kure Beach, N.C., a few houses, a trailer and a real estate office were boarded up and the town hall had metal storm shutters.

Jimbo Andrews nursed a soda at a local watering hole where bartender Kassie Jones made plans for a Friday night hurricane party. Andrews said he keeps hurricane supplies at his house year-round and planned to leave if Ike hit.

As for Hanna? It looked to get him out of some weekend yard work.

"No sense in going to the trouble when you got a storm coming," he said.