Looking outside today, you would never imagine that a huge storm system – the likes of which some are calling a once-in-a-lifetime event – is bearing down on us.

"The calm before the storm" is an idiom we've heard numerous times and given today's sunny weather, and the kind of forecast looming for the weekend, that reference appears to fit Hurricane Irene.

What we can't afford to do is point to past examples where big storms have fizzled out before reaching us. Each system presents unique hazards and while some people may boast of riding out storms in the past, most forecasters agree that Irene is not one to mess with.

Those who foolishly ignore orders to evacuate the coastal areas can't say that they haven't had advance warning. Forecasters have been tracking Irene for a week since it developed from a well-defined tropical wave in the Atlantic.

A friend of mine living in Outer Banks area of North Carolina is used to seeing storm flags raised when a hurricane approaches the coast. He emailed me yesterday to say he's coming to Pa. to ride this one out. This is the sense that he and others have with this storm.

Irene is a monster system with all the ingredients – powerful winds, torrential rains, and even possible catastrophic storm surge for those living near the coast – to make life miserable for millions all along the I-95 corridor. The tropical-force winds of this storm extend about as far as Katrina's did when it devastated New Orleans six years ago.

Although not in great danger of being impacted by hurricane-strength winds or a storm surge, central-eastern Pennsylvania remains in the cone of concern for storm-trackers and we can at least expect heavy rains and possibly some power outages.

The Navy is taking Irene seriously, ordering many of its ships – including the aircraft carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower – out to sea to wait out the storm.

State and city officials are also showing concern. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie warned that just looking at Irene from a flooding standpoint, we could be looking at a once-in-a-century event.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said New Yorkers could go out tonight and enjoy a good meal but then be ready to deal with the weekend intruder. He isn't ruling out the possibility of emergency evacuations. At the least, residents should have the essential emergency supplies on hand – flashlights, water, etc.

One hurricane specialist said depending on the storm's track, it could strike New York City as a Category 1 or 2. Along with the high winds and heavy rain, another potential threat is a storm surge. A worst-case scenario would be the 13-foot waves caused by a hurricane in 1821.

Residents can't become complacent when they hear that a storm is downgraded to a Category 1. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel came ashore as a Category 1 storm in Virginia and ended up killing 30 people and causing over $1 billion in property damage.

As one official aptly warned, you don't have to have a major hurricane to end up with major hardship, including death and destruction.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com