As officials in North Carolina reportedly ordered more bodybags for locals refusing to leave what may be Hurricane Irene's first U.S. landfall zone, the menace has managed what nothing else has been able to do further north -- shut down the city that never sleeps.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg today announced the first ever mandatory evacuation of low-lying waterfront areas of the city. Those areas include parts of the financial district in Lower Manhattan, as well as sections along the Hudson and East rivers. The "danger" zone, which includes 250,000 people, was ordered emptied by 5 p.m. Saturday.
In fact, up and down the East Coast more than 2 million people were told to evacuate, The Associated Press reported.
Mayor Bloomberg also ordered that the city's sprawling subway and bus system -- Gotham's lifeline -- be shut down from Saturday afternoon until Monday. Closing down the transit system will paralyze a city in which most people don't drive cars. A spokesperson for the MTA said that the entire subway system has only been shut down twice in recent memory, on Sept. 11, 2001, and during a strike in 2005.
After it became clear that the subway system would shut, the Broadway League declared that all weekend Broadway performances would be cancelled, and the New York Mets canceled Major League Baseball games scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
Five New York hospitals have begun to evacuate and transfer patients.
Bloomberg warned New Yorkers to not be fooled because "the sun is shining." He said Irene is a "dangerous storm," and "it's heading basically directly for us."
President Obama signed an emergency declaration for New York and urged people in the path of the storm to heed evacuation orders.
"I cannot stress this highly enough. If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now. Don't wait, don't delay," said Obama. "All indications point to this being a historic hurricane."
Irene's winds eased up a bit today, although it's still a ferocious Category 2 storm with 100 mph winds. At its peak, Irene was a Category 3 storm blasting away with 115 mph winds.
Hurricane Irene is expected to make landfall Saturday in the barrier islands of North Carolina and start churning its way north along the coast continuing beyond Boston through the weekend. At least 65 million people live in the path of Irene. Along with powerful winds will come monsoon-like rains and heavy inland surges of water.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue urged the 3.5 million residents in the coastal part of the state to get out of Irene's path. She said that Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks was now clear of people and that the ferry service would be shut down. Railroads in eastern North Carolina will be shut down Saturday.
"This hurricane is real. It is headed our way," Perdue said at a press conference this morning. "I urge every citizen along the coastal plains to evacuate. It is so much better to be safe than to be sorry. We can rebuild houses ... but families cannot be replaced."
But it turned out there remained holdouts on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands who'd boarded up their homes, secured their possessions and settled in -- refusing to leave.
In response, local officials said they were ordering dozens more bodybags, The Associated Press reported.
"I anticipate we're going to have people floating on the streets, and I don't want to leave them lying there," said Richard Marlin, fire chief for one of the seven villages on Hatteras. "The Coast Guard will either be pulling people off their roofs like in Katrina or we'll be scraping them out of their yards."
But people are moving away from the East Coast. However, the threat of Irene is snarling potential escape methods. So far, more than 5,700 commercial airplane flights have been cancelled, and five major New York-area airports planned to close Saturday at noon to arriving passenger flights. Amtrak, which halted service south of Washington, announced it will halt train service as far north as Boston on Sunday.
Like New York, Philadelphia is also stopping all mass transit operations. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority would cease service beginning at 12:30 a.m. Saturday.
Even Atlantic City, N.J., isn't gambling on Irene's strength. Gov. Chris Christie suspended all gaming activity starting on Saturday at noon.
Irene is slowly lumbering toward the East Coast, and although its wind velocity has diminished slightly, the National Hurricane Center said that it did not expect any further diminishing of Irene's strength.
"I don't see it falling apart. There's nothing in the atmosphere that would kill it altogether," said Bill Read of the National Hurricane Center. "I would prepare for the worst and hope for the best."
Hurricane warnings have been extended from North Carolina through the Mid-Atlantic region and New England, even as far as Martha's Vineyard. States of emergency have been declared in North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.
"The magnitude of the potential impact from this is sometimes hard to get your hands on," Read said.
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Read said the Northeast corridor could expect up to 10 inches of rain, but since the area's ground is already saturated from heavy rains earlier in the week, the ground will not be able to soak up the downpour, causing flash floods. The soggy ground will also make it more likely for trees to come down in high winds, possibly taking out power lines at the same time.