By Della Hasselle, Jill Colvin, Jim Scott and Tom Liddy
MANHATTAN — New Yorkers have been told to brace for mass evacuations and a complete shutdown of all city subways and buses as monster Hurricane Irene takes aim at the city.
The massive storm, a Category 2 as of Friday packing sustained winds of 110 mph, was on target for a direct hit in the New York area on Sunday afternoon, bringing with it torrential rain, massive storm surges, devastating winds and the potential for severe flooding.
"What we have to do is assume the worst, prepare for that, and hope for the best," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a hastily-called press conference at City Hall Thursday evening.
Much of the southern Manhattan coastline, from 72nd Street to the Battery on the West Side and then up to 40th Street on the East Side lie in what city officials call Zone A - areas that have the highest risk of flooding from a hurricane.
Battery Park City, the Financial District and swaths of Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen and the East Village, could face the worst flooding in the event of a hurricane striking nearby, according to the city's evacuation map.
Officials warned New Yorkers living in those areas to brace for an evacuation. While a final order will be issued by Saturday at 8 a.m., the mayor advised residents to begin making preparations to move immediately in order to alleviate potential traffic jams.
"So if you live in one of these communities and have a relative or friend you can stay with in a safer, less vulnerable area, you should think about arranging to stay there until the storm passes," Bloomberg said.
While a mandatory evacuation would only be called as a last resort, the mayor urged people living in the Zone A to find someone inland to stay with during the storm as a precaution.
"The only reason you issue an order like that is you think people’s lives are in jeopardy," he said.
The mayor also "strongly urged" all home-bound people living in Zone A to begin making arrangements to move on Friday, to relieve pressure on Access-a-Ride. Shelters will be open as of 4 p.m. Friday.
“The more people we get to move earlier, the better off we are," he said.
In addition, the city urged people with home-bound loved ones in Zone A to move them to higher ground, move cars to higher-elevation areas and remove any furniture from balconies ahead of the storm.
Already, all hospitals, nursing homes and senior centers in the zone have been told that they must evacuate as of 8 p.m. Friday unless they secure special permission from the city and state health departments that they are equipped to handle the storm. That would include Bellevue Hospital Center and NYU Medical Center in Murray Hill.
If Irene hits the area as a Category 2 or greater, with winds of at least 96 mph, areas in Zone B, including more of Lower Manhattan and even portions of East Harlem and Inwood could find themselves flooded.
And in the event that a Category 3 or greater storm hits south of the city, all of the borough in Zone C, including most of Lower Manhattan and broad swaths up and down the East and West Side could be flooded. Large portions of Washington Heights and East Harlem could also be affected.
The mayor urged residents to check if they live in hurricane evacuation zones, which can be done through the Office of Emergency Management or the city's website or by calling 311. A map of high risk areas is also available from WNYC.
Bloomberg said city residents should also check out the city's hurricane guide on NYC.gov, which includes instructions about topics ranging from disaster kits to what to do with pets. A copy can also be downloaded here. (Traffic on the city and OEM's website was extremely high Thursday night, so response times might be slow.)
Forecasts show Irene, which was moving north at 14 mph, tracking up the East Coast and taking aim on the city Sunday afternoon as a Category 1 storm, with winds between 74 - 95 mph. Over the course of the day Thursday, the track of the storm took a turn to the west.
"That means that instead of going across the eastern portion of Long Island, it now appears that it will reach our area closer to Eastern Queens," the mayor said.
While sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-80s are expected for Friday, conditions are expected to deteriorate Saturday night with wind gusts near 50 mph, according to the National Weather Service. The bulk of the storm is expected to hit Sunday afternoon, and clear out by Monday morning.
The mayor and MTA Chief Jay Walder warned that public transit could be shut down as soon as Saturday afternoon, and that a full shutdown — which Walder described as unprecedented under these conditions — could last well into Monday afternoon.
“What we have here is a storm with projected winds that would exceed the levels at which the MTA can safety [run]," Walder told reporters Thursday.
That raises the real possibility that, “you are fundamentally not going to have mass transit to take you around," Bloomberg added.
The dire warnings came hours after Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. The move allows the state to move resources to the city and surrounding area should the storm cause major damage here.
In preparation for the storm, the city has suspended alternate side parking regulations and meter rules on Saturday and Monday to facilitate storm response.
The mayor also signed an executive order Thursday revoking all permits for the more than 300 outdoor activities planned citywide on Sunday. Events in Zone A areas will be canceled Saturday as well.
And because of the high winds, New Yorkers were urged to stay out of parks and their backyards, where there is an increased risk of downed trees.
City officials and agencies geared up throughout the day Thursday preparing in case New York takes a direct hit from Irene, which was on a path that could lead it either directly over or within 30 miles.
Joe Bruno, commissioner of the city's Office of Emergency Management, said New York could get up to 6 to 12 inches of rain, a deluge that would cause serious flood problems if drainage systems become overwhelmed.
The Emergency Operations Center was activated and crews were working feverishly to clean out the city's 143 catch basins to help lessen the chances of flooding. Some $2 billion has been spent on sewer upgrades since 2002, which has helped reduce flooding in some areas, Bloomberg said.
Even if the storm tracks East, damaging tropical storm force winds (between 40 and 70 mph) could cause widespread tree damage, major power outages and structural damage to buildings in the city, including shattered glass from skyscrapers.
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.
National Hurricane Center director Bill Read drew comparisons from Irene to a 1938 hurricane that also approached from the South and killed 682 people in New England. The eye of that storm missed New York City to the East, but caused millions of dollars in damage and left 10 people dead, according to Weather.com.
Irene has already wrought destruction in the Bahamas and across the Caribbean. The two southern islands of the Bahamas were severely damaged early Thursday when it pummeled them as a Category 3 hurricane with winds up to 115 mph.
But the mayor said the heads of all the city's emergency response teams are ready for all contingencies. The Parks Department has a plan in place to handle any tree damage and the Sanitation Department has instructed all street cleaners to be on the look out for clogged storm drains. The NYPD has several helicopters and 33 police boats on standby for the storm.
And Con Edison officials said the utility is on high alert for possible power outages and gas and steam problems.