President Barack Obama pleaded Monday with Americans still in deadly Hurricane Sandy's path not to ignore orders to evacuate, warning that failure to flee to safety would lead to "fatalities that could have been avoided."
Obama, who canceled campaign events in order to return to Washington, D.C., to oversee the federal government's response to the devastating storm, also said he was not concerned about its potential impact on the election.
"I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election," Obama said during a brief appearance in the White House briefing room after holding talks with governors in states affected by the storm and federal emergency workers. "The election will take care of itself next week.
"I'm worried about the impact on families, and I'm worried about the impact on our first responders," he continued. "I'm worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation. Right now, our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we are saving lives, that our search and rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, the water, the shelter that they need in case of emergency, and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track."Obama warned that the storm, which has already left at least 65 people dead in the Caribbean, would affect millions of Americans across a vast stretch of the country.
"When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate," he said. "Do not delay. Don't pause. Don't question the instructions that are being given, because this is a serious storm and it could potentially have fatal consequences.
"If you are not evacuating when you've been asked to evacuate, you're putting first responders in danger," he emphasized.
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The president spoke about the government's response to the storm after discussions with governors from the states most likely to be affected.
He also held a teleconference with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and National Hurricane Center Director Richard Knabb.
Also taking part were chief of staff Jack Lew; John Brennan, assistant to the president for Homeland Security; deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco; Richard Reed, deputy assistant to the president for Homeland Security; and other senior members of the president's team.
Obama braced the public for transportation disruptions and an uphill fight to restore electrical power.
"Transportation is going to be tied up for a long time," he said. "And probably the most significant impact for a lot of people, in addition to flooding, is going to be getting power back on.
"Even after the storm has cleared, it's going to take a considerable amount of time for airlines, subways, trains and so forth potentially to get back on schedule, depending on the amount of damage that has occurred.
"This is going to be a big storm," Obama continued. "It's going to be a difficult storm. I'm confident that we're ready, but I think the public needs to prepare for the fact that this is going to take a long time for us to clean up. The good news is we will clean up and we will get through this."