NEW YORK CITY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency in New York as Mayor Michael Bloomberg said New Yorkers should start taking precautions as Hurricane Sandy churned its way up the East Coast.
Bloomberg fell short of calling for a mandatory evacuation of low-lying areas and suspending MTA service, as he did during Hurricane Irene last year.
Meteorologists are warning the so-called “Frankenstorm” could prove “catastrophic” for the city, producing hurricane-force winds, driving rain, and flooding that could prove far worse than Hurricane Irene.
But city officials said it's still too soon to predict the hurricane's path.
“We’re not going to know anything until late Saturday afternoon, early Saturday evening,” Bloomberg told reporters at a press conference on the storm at City Hall.
Nonetheless, the city and state have begun preparing for the storm:
► Six city hospitals and 41 chronic care facilities, including nursing homes located in low-lying areas, are being advised to cancel all elective admissions and discharge all patients that can safely leave their facilities.
► Senior centers will close early Monday, and will be closed completely Tuesday, with extra meals sent home Saturday, he said.
► School has not yet been canceled, but Sunday’s specialized high school entrance exam has been postponed until Nov. 18. (Saturday's exam will not be affected.)
► Bloomberg also recommended that all residents stay out of parks starting Sunday, to avoid the risk of falling tree limbs.
► The MTA also warned riders Friday to brace for potential subway service shutdowns, and canceled all weekend construction except on the 7 and J lines. The agency added that buses, railroads, bridges and tunnels are being prepped for high winds and heavy rain.
► The MTA also had crews out along commuter rail lines inspecting drains and flood-prone areas to prepare for a deluge.
► Staten Island Ferry riders should expect delays Monday morning, the city said.
► The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission does not anticipate implementing a zone fare system, as it did during Hurricane Irene, because of the confusion it caused. However, the TLC is coordinating with all bases to prepare for service case of an evacuation.
Cuomo's declaration allows for the state to ask for federal money from FEMA to assist in preparations from the storm.
The storm, dubbed "Frankenstorm" because it's an amalgam of a large hurricane and a cold front, is expected to start arriving in the city by Sunday evening.
But the brunt of the storm is expected to hit Monday night, when the city will be socked with hurricane-force winds, driving rain and potential flooding that could prove far worse than Irene.
“This is going to be a major event, there’s going be catastrophic damage,” said Bob Smerbeck, expert senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com, who said that, even if Hurricane Sandy shifts its course, it will likely prove devastating for New York.
“This scenario is the worst case scenario,” he said. "It's going to be an historic storm."
City and state official began preparing New York City for the worst on Thursday, with efforts ramping up as the storm nears.
During Hurricane Irene, all subway service was canceled to protect equipment from being damaged by high winds and flooding.
The MTA’s Hurricane Plan calls for a mandatory service shutdown before the arrival of a storm with sustained winds of 39 mph — and it can take officials up to 12 hours to move equipment out of harms' way. Bridges could be closed with sustained winds of 60 mph or above.
Bloomberg said a decision had not yet been made about whether to potentially shut the subways or evacuate residents in low-lying areas, which the city performed for the first time in its history during Hurricane Irene.
"You’d rather be safe than sorry. On the other hand, you can't evacuate every time," he said. “At the moment, we do not think that it's necessary to make that decision right now.”
Approximately 375,000 people live in the city's lowest-lying "Zone A" areas, which includes Coney Island, Manhattan Beach and Red Hook in Brooklyn, all of the Rockaways, almost all the coast line of Staten Island, City Island, a patch of Throgs Neck and the South Bronx, and Manhattan's Battery Park City, stretches of the west side, Lower East Side and East Village waterfronts.
Bloomberg said that residents should nonetheless begin taking precautions.
He advised New Yorkers to pay attention to news reports and visit nyc.gov, which has been given additional capacity to handle the anticipated load.
The city advises residents to make sure they have "go bags" with emergency belongings at the ready, which should include copies of important documents in a waterproof and portable container, an extra set of car and house keys, copies of credit and ATM cards, cash, bottled water, nonperishable food items, a flashlight, radio, extra batteries and a first aid kit.
"It’s going to be just blasting wind, power outages, combined with heavy rains,” said Smerbeck, who said that winds are expected to reach 50 to 60 mph, driving a storm surge as high as 5 to 10 feet.
Thanks to a combination of forces, including a very high tide, officials warn the surge could create “extreme coastal flooding” in low-lying areas, including much of coastal Brooklyn and Battery Park.
The city’s hurricane guide advised families to develop a plan about where to find each other and how to communicate during the storm.
Residents are also advised to prepare their homes by securing outdoor objects, such as porch and lawn furniture that could blow away in the wind, secure doors and windows, and move valuable items to upper floors, which are less likely to flood.
"People think you’re crying wolf. But we don’t do this lightly. We’re trying to be balanced," Bloomberg said. “Common sense says you should start taking precautions, get ready just in case."