By Jim Scott, Tuan Nguyen, Mary Johnson, Jill Colvin, Patrick Hedlund, Serena Solomon, Ben Fractenberg, Jeff Mays and Tom Liddy
MANHATTAN — Mandatory evacuations for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living in low-lying areas around Manhattan and the five boroughs were ordered Friday as massive Hurricane Irene barrels towards the city — the first time residents have been ordered to move out of the way of a storm.
Those affected live in Zone A, the neighborhoods around the city that are at the highest risk for flooding in any hurricane. Residents can find out what zone they live in by checking the city's hurricane evacuation map.
While the order does not take effect until 5 p.m. Saturday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the more than 291,000 residents living in Zone A should get out now.
"If you don't follow this, people might die," he said. "This is a matter of life and death."
“I just have to repeat: this is very serious. Do not be fooled by the sun outside. If you want to be safe, now’s the time to start moving.”
Several neighborhoods and some 70,000 people in Manhattan are covered by the order, including Battery Park City, parts of the East Village and stretches along the Manhattan waterfront from 72nd Street on the West Side to 41st Street on the East Side.
Everyone in Zone A must be out by 5 p.m. Saturday. To expedite the process, City Council staffers will be going door-to-door and police will be out informing people on the streets.
While the order is mandatory, "we do not have the manpower to go door-to-door and drag people out of their homes… people need to leave,” Bloomberg said.
Not complying with such an order would normally be a class B misdemeanor, but the stakes are much greater in this case, the mayor said.
"Nobody’s going to be fined. Nobody’s going to jail, but if you don’t follow it, people might die,” he added.
The order came a day after residents in Zone A were advised to begin clearing out and moving loved ones who are homebound. Some 13 city shelters, which can accommodate 14,400 people in Manhattan, will be open as of 4 p.m. Friday for those who have nowhere to go (a list of facilities is available here). Hospitals in Zone A areas were also evacuated Friday, as were nursing homes.
The city also took the unprecedented step of announcing a system-wide shutdown of its transit systems beginning at noon Saturday. The move will affect subways, buses, the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North Railroad and Access-a-Ride.
"I can't stress enough that please do not wait for the last train," said MTA chief Jay Walder. "There is simply not capacity for everyone to get on the last train."
While the subways will shut down at noon, buses will run slightly longer. There will be extra capacity Saturday in order to accommodate the expected increase in ridership.
The agency is particularly worried about downed trees and flooding in underwater tunnels. It is not clear if service will be restored by Monday.
Fares at subway and rail stations in the mandatory evacuation area will be suspended as will bus fares throughout the city starting at 8 p.m. Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced. Tolls at the Verrazano, Cross Bay and Marine Parkway bridges were also suspended as of that time.
Bridges around the city — including the George Washington Bridge, Tappan Zee Bridge and all of the bridges operated by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority — will be shut down if winds exceed 60 mph, Cuomo said Friday.
Up to 900 national guard troops and more than 100 vehicles will be deployed to support civil authorities around the state, but it was not immediately clear if they were heading to the city, Cuomo said.
And late Friday, the Port Authority announced that JFK airport would be closed to international arrivals beginning at noon Saturday. Officials were worried that there might not be enough customs personnel onhand to allow everyone to deplane. Most domestic carriers have already cancelled their flights into and out of JFK - among 3,000 weekend flights cancelled on the East Coast, according to Reuters.
The warnings came as Irene, a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 100 mph churned off the South Carolina coast Friday afternoon, picking up speed as it traveled north. The storm was downgraded from a Category 3 earlier in the day.
The mayor said the tempest is expected to blow into the city, which was under a hurricane warning, as a Category 1 storm. Sustained winds of 74 mph were expected on Saturday and Sunday with the strongest gusts forecast for Saturday night.
New Yorkers can expect up to 10 inches of rain, high tides and very strong winds. Swells are expected to reach five to seven feet above high tide.
The National Weather Service predicts showers and thunderstorms after 11 a.m. Saturday with tropical storm and hurricane conditions possible in the evening.
On Sunday, hurricane conditions are possible with gusts as high as 85 mph. Most of the storm should clear out by Sunday night with breezy conditions and a slight chance of showers. Monday is expected to be sunny with a high of 82.
Among other rapid developments Friday:
- The city plans to institute a system in which taxi fares will be based on zones and group rides will be permitted. The plan begins 9 a.m. Saturday.
- All city beaches are closed until further notice.
- Parks Department recreation centers and pools will be closed starting Saturday.
- If winds reach 46 mph, the Staten Island Ferry might be suspended.
- The Jets-Giants game scheduled for Sunday was canceled.
- Mets games scheduled for Saturday and Sunday were canceled.
- All Broadway shows were canceled for Saturday and Sunday, according to Playbill.com.
Even those who are not in city's evacuation zones are at risk in the monster storm. The mayor urged residents to stay inside from 9 p.m. tomorrow to 9 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s fun being out. But this is dangerous," Bloomberg said. "There’s flying glass, there’s tree limbs, who knows what.”
New Yorkers were also warned to stay away from windows and glass atria. Those living in high-rise buildings should seek shelter below the 11th floor.
In case the water system breaks down, residents were urged to fill bathtubs or sinks with water so for drinking and bathing. Because of power outages, they were told to avoid elevators as well.
In addition, the city urged people to move cars to higher-elevation areas and remove any furniture from balconies ahead of the storm. However, the mayor said that air conditioners should be left in place if they're secured.
Around Manhattan, people in evacuation zones gathered their loved ones, pets and supplies and began moving out Friday.
"I would have stayed," said photographer Chris Penler, 35, of the Financial District, one of the vulnerable areas.
Penler, who lives on the 19th floor of a building on Gold Street, was headed up to Buffalo with his girlfriend. "I don't think it's going to be that bad, but I could be wrong."
Wheelchair-bound Lorraine Johnson, 66, who lives in the Stanley Isaac Houses on 94th Street and First Avenue, was planning to head to The Bronx to ride out the storm. "I think it's going to be bad," she said. "I happen to be right by the river so if something hits, I'll be in trouble."
And at the Riis Houses on the Lower East Side, city housing employees went around telling residents about the evacuation and handing out fliers with information about shelters.
But Jimmy Domena, 77, who lives in a basement apartment on 9th Street between Avenue B and Avenue C, vowed to stay put.
"It has never flooded," he said. And if it does: "I have my scuba gear."
Businesses battened down the hatches and prepared to close early in order to avoid the brunt of the storm, despite the fact that grocery stores and restaurants may lose their stocks.
Supplies sold out around stores around Manhattan as residents scrambled to stock up on food, water, cash, supplies and even booze. The Fairway on the Upper West Side was nearly out of bread and the K-Mart at Penn Station sold out of flashlights within the first two hours of business Friday.
Others tried to make the best of the seemingly dire situation.
Brian G., 29, who lives in the East Village evacuation zone, said that he stocked up on "super processed dry food that will last as long as it needs to" and was planning to stay at a pal's house.
"It's an excuse to do nothing, play funny board games and get drunk," he said.
Officials said that people should take precautions to prevent looting in evacuation zones, but that personal safety should be the primary concern.
"Obviously we want people to lock up their property, do everything they possibly can to secure it," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. "But we'll have police officers deployed to provide security throughout all of the evacuation areas."
Earlier Friday, senior centers and hospitals in Zone A evacuated, including the Mark of Battery Park City.
“I’m surprised about the hurricane. It may turn out to be not that bad,” said Jacquie Gouveia, 76, as she got into her daughter’s car outside the center. “It’s just up to Mother Nature.”
Michelle, a staff at the center, said the center had an emergency meeting Thursday before making the final call to evacuate.
“Please have a bag packed and be ready for evacuation of the Hallmark today,” read the notice at the front desk.
And both NYU Medical Center and the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System hospital at 423 E. 23rd St. announced they were evacuating patients Friday.
NYU said that some 400 patients would be affected. Those who are well enough would be sent home while others would be taken to alternate hospitals. The emergency department is also closed, the hospital said.
While the track of the storm could change, the mayor said the city had to be prepared.
"What we have to do is assume the worst, prepare for that, and hope for the best," Bloomberg said Thursday evening.
“All indications point to this being an historic hurricane,” President Barack Obama said from Martha's Vineyard, Mass. on Friday.
While Hurricane Bob came close to the city in 1991, the Big Apple has not suffered a direct hit from a hurricane since a Category 1 storm made landfall east of Coney Island in August 1893.