AIRLINES CANCEL 9,500-PLUS FLIGHTS
U.S. airlines scrubbed more than 9,500 weekend flights as Hurricane Irene churned up the East Coast and shuttered airports in New York, the nation's busiest travel market.
American Airlines halted New York City-area flights as of 10 a.m. local time Saturday, while United and Delta earlier scrubbed their full schedules.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport were both open Saturday afternoon, but most flights had been canceled.
Twenty-four flights between 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 a.m. Sunday from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to areas affected by Irene were canceled, according to Melissa Scovronski, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. That's less than 10 percent of the flights ordinarily scheduled during that period, she said, adding that a huge snowstorm back East would have more impact than Irene has so far on flights.
STORM'S DYNAMICS HARD TO GAUGE
Irene may be the first hurricane to hit the East Coast in several years, but in one respect it's like all the others that have come and gone before it: Forecasters have had difficulty predicting its strength.
Officials with the National Hurricane Center cautioned at midday Saturday that the storm was still capable of inflicting heavy damage, particularly from flooding, as it slogged toward New Jersey and New York. But they said it had decreased in intensity, with sustained wind speeds of about 85 miles an hour, down 10 miles an hour from just six hours earlier. And they acknowledged that they did not know precisely why it had weakened.
"There's some internal dynamics of the storm that we don't completely understand," said Todd Kimberlain, a hurricane specialist at the center in Miami.
Kimberlain said one reason for the weakening may be that the storm had never completed a typical hurricane cycle in which the innermost band of spinning clouds, called the inner eye wall, dissipates and is replaced with an outer band that contracts.
"Some hurricanes get through this process and afterward will strengthen," he said. "But we don't know what has to go on internally."
By not completing the cycle, Irene has become less organized and has lower peak winds, although it is still a very wide storm, he said.
OBAMA CHECKS OUT FEMA OPERATIONS
Determined to avoid any comparisons with the federal government's failed response to Hurricane Katrina, the Obama administration made a public display Saturday of the range of its efforts to make sure officials in the storm-drenched states had whatever help they needed from Washington.
President Obama, who returned to Washington a day early from his summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard, took the lead, visiting the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency shortly after noon. While there, he checked in on the National Response Coordination Center, a 24-hour command center where dozens of federal employees from a range of agencies were assembled to help orchestrate the response to Hurricane Irene.
ON THE LOOKOUT FOR GAS GOUGING
Rules against price gouging at gas stations took effect throughout the Middle Atlantic states. Authorities will be on the lookout for stations that try to take advantage of panicked drivers.
Pump prices rose as much as 3 cents per gallon overnight to $3.44 per gallon in Philadelphia and $3.49 in New Jersey's Atlantic City-Cape May area.
They seemed to hold in other areas, rising a penny or so on average in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas.
WIRE, STAFF REPORTS