In an unprecedented decision, nearly 300,000 people who live in flood-prone areas of New York City were ordered to evacuate Friday as Hurricane Irene sets its sights on the nation's largest city. New Yorkers, many of them without cars, don't have much time to get out of the way before the city shutters its subways, buses and trains on Saturday.
At a press conference Friday, Mayor Bloomberg ordered a mandatory evacuation for all 270,000 residents living in low-lying Zone A areas, and the Far Rockaways. "Nature is a force more powerful than any of us," the Mayor said, "and it really is better to be safe than sorry."
The areas include the Battery Park City complex on the southern end of Manhattan; Coney Island, famed for its boardwalk and amusement park; the beachfront community of the Rockaways and other neighborhoods around the city. "We've never done a mandatory evacuation before," the Mayor continued, "and we wouldn't do it now if we didn't think the storm had the potential to be very serious."
Meanwhile, subways, buses and commuter trains in the city, on Long Island and in the northern suburbs will begin their final runs around noon Saturday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have said they can't run the transit system once sustained winds reach 39 mph, and they need an eight-hour lead time to shut it down. Officials have entreated residents to take it upon themselves to get out early, but it remained unclear how many would heed the warnings that subways and buses might not be there for them if they waited.
While the evacuation was a first for New Yorkers, "I would think that the vast bulk will comply," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference. "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."
"Waiting until the last minute is not a smart thing to do," he added. "This is life-threatening."
The mayor urged New Yorkers to stay indoors from Saturday 9pm to Sunday 9pm to avoid injury from falling glass, tree limbs and blowing debris.
NYC.gov was overloaded and shutdown Friday morning as three times average volume in traffic hit the site. The website received 4.3 million hits, shattering the previous record of 2.2 million on January 26th.
While the forecast is still subject to change, it appears the storm will make landfall in New York and Long Island early Sunday as a category 1 storm with wind speeds reaching up to 85mph. "This is very serious," the Mayor said. "Do not be fooled by the sun outside. That is the calm before the storm."
Meanwhile, shelters were set to open and other preparations continued as the city faced the likelihood of its first hurricane warning since 1985. A hurricane watch was in effect Friday for New York City and Long Island for Sunday, with storm conditions possible Saturday night.
State Director of Operations Howard Glaser said the noon shutdown should provide "sufficient capacity" to get residents out of vulnerable areas. Cuomo said the decision would keep subways and buses "out of harm's way" so service can return as soon as possible after the storm.
The MTA has never before halted its entire system — which carries about 5 million passengers on an average weekday — in advance of a storm, though the system 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.
Said MTA Chairman Jay Walder, "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."
Check here to see NYC evacuation zones. And check out our guide on how to prepare for a hurricane in New York.