Washington (CNN) -- As it became clear this week that Hurricane Irene had her eye trained on much of the East Coast, federal officials began setting in motion preparations that have been two years in the making.
Shortly after taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama and other high-level authorities participated in a national level exercise simulating a Category 3 hurricane striking New York City, Deputy White House Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday.
"The reason I raise this is because the federal government's preparations for this storm didn't just begin as the clouds started to gather and form a tropical depression, but rather that the federal government, and this administration in particular, is constantly exercising and preparing and testing and evaluating our readiness for situations like this," Earnest said shortly after announcing that Obama was cutting short his vacation in Martha's Vineyard to return to the White House.
Obama has faced a number of tests in his first three years in office: a struggling economy, high unemployment rates and an environmental disaster with the BP oil spill. Another big test could come this weekend as Irene bears down on a huge sweep of the coast, forcing the question: Will the federal response to this storm of possibly "historic proportions" be better than to Hurricane Katrina?
Irene is the first major hurricane to strike the United States since Obama took office. But the lessons learned from Katrina -- which also struck in late August, in 2005 -- are presumably the focus of the administration's response.
In his memoir "Decision Points," former President George W. Bush calls the response "not only flawed" but "unacceptable," and describes his own failures in this way: "As the leader of the federal government, I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days
after Katrina, that didn't happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide."
Earnest said the 2009 exercise was designed to evaluate "interagency federal response" and what types of "measures that the federal government could take in the situation in support of state and local officials."
One key takeaway from the exercise, Earnest said, was the importance of sending in incident management teams ahead of the storm.
That lesson has been applied to Irene, with such teams already deployed in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, Massachusetts and Vermont, according to Earnest. More than 100,000 National Guard members also stood ready to assist in the storm aftermath, with hundreds already on the ground in some areas.
Meanwhile, the president conducted conference calls Thursday and Friday with such officials as his chief of staff, Bill Daley, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate, as well as governors and mayors in states in the path of the storm.
Obama emphasized during these phone calls "that the entire federal government is focused on bringing all available resources to bear on this effort and he directed his team to continue to make sure that there are no unmet needs," Earnest said.
The president also signed a disaster declaration for New York and North Carolina, clearing the way for federal funds to assist in cleanup and recovery efforts.
And, in an effort to convey the seriousness of this storm, Obama delivered a statement Friday warning "all indications point to this being a historic hurricane." He urged those in the path of the hurricane "to take precautions now."
FEMA -- its image among the worst affected by the Katrina response -- was also working to get the word out this week.
"Residents and businesses along the East Coast should be taking steps now to prepare for severe weather, and following the instruction of their local officials, including any evacuation orders," Fugate said in a statement.
The agency also moved into place nearly 400,000 meals and 380,000 liters of water at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where "supplies can be moved quickly throughout nearby areas."
On the five-year anniversary of Katrina last year, Obama visited the hard-hit city of New Orleans, where hundreds of people died when the city's levees failed and water poured into the streets, flooding homes and sending terrified residents to their roofs to await rescue.
"The big lesson from Katrina is, you can't wait to find out how bad it is," he said. "You've got to respond, as a team, as [if] it is bad."
He promised that a team examining disaster recovery nationwide is "improving coordination on the ground, modernizing emergency communications and helping families plan for a crisis."