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Irene evacuations, transit shutdown ordered in NYC

SHARE Irene evacuations, transit shutdown ordered in NYC

NEW YORK — More than 300,000 people were told Friday to evacuate and New York ordered buses, planes and its entire subway system shut down as Hurricane Irene marched up the East Coast.

It was the first time part of the nation's largest city was evacuated. And never before has the entire mass transit system been shuttered because of a storm. Despite not knowing how the city would react, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was confident people would get out of the storm's way.

"Waiting until the last minute is not a smart thing to do," Bloomberg said. "This is life-threatening."

Irene was expected to make landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, then roll along the East Coast before hitting near Manhattan on Sunday.

Residents in the Battery Park City complex on the southern end of Manhattan and Coney Island, famed for its boardwalk and amusement park, were told to be out by Saturday at 5 p.m. The beachfront Rockaways community and other neighborhoods around the city were also under the evacuation order.

"I would think that the vast bulk will comply," Bloomberg said of the evacuation order. "Unfortunately, there's a handful who will not comply until it's too late. And at that point in time, you can really get stuck."

Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said they can't run the transit system once sustained winds reach 39 mph, and they need eight hours to shut it down. Bridges could also be closed as the storm approaches, clogging traffic in an already congested city.

Nearly 100 shelters were set to open as the city faced its first hurricane since 1985 when Gloria hit Long Island as a Category 2 storm with winds gusts of up to 100 mph. Irene is expected to be a Category 1, with winds of at least 74 mph, when it hits New York.

The mayor warned residents not to be fooled by the sunny weather Friday and said police officers would use loudspeakers on patrol vehicles to spread the word about the evacuation.

"We do not have the manpower to go door-to-door and drag people out of their homes," he said. "Nobody's going to get fined. Nobody's going to go to jail. But if you don't follow this, people might die."

Construction was stopping. Workers were securing scaffolding and cranes. Concerts and other events were canceled.

In a city where many residents don't own a car, Bloomberg said he still believed officials could handle any overflow of the transit system.

"Nobody expects you to go walk 10 miles," he said. "You'll get to the shelter, it's our responsibility and we think that we can handle it."

The evacuation posed a logistical challenge. For those with cars, parking is available at the city's evacuation centers. From there, each family will be assigned to a shelter. Buses will run from the evacuation centers to the shelters.

In the Queens community of the Rockaways, more than 111,000 people live on a barrier peninsula connected to the city by two bridges and to Long Island to the west. There is no subway service there.

The MTA has never before halted its entire system — which carries about 5 million passengers on an average weekday — before a storm, though it was seriously hobbled by an August 2007 rainstorm that disabled or delayed every one of the city's subway lines. The last planned shutdown of the entire transit system was during a 2005 strike.

"We're working forward on a plan that will do two things: It will help effectuate the evacuation ... and it will protect the safety of our customers and protect the safety of our equipment," MTA Chairman Jay Walder said.