By Jill Colvin, Andrea Swalec, Mathew Katz, Patrick Hedlund, Julie Shapiro and Michael Ventura
MANHATTAN — Despite a 5 p.m. mandatory evacuation deadline, many of those living in low-lying areas refused to leave Manhattan Saturday ahead of the deadly Hurricane Irene, as officials continued to warn of severe winds, a massive storm surge and the potential flooding of the electric grid that could leave sections of lower Manhattan, including the Financial District, without power for up to three days.
Michael Gaschler, who has lived in Battery Park City since 1983, said he and his wife would stay in their apartment, despite the threat.
"We've been through Wilma, a Category 3 hurricane, in Naples [Florida, where he and his wife have a vacation home]. We were here on 9/11. This is nothing," he said, noting he'd stocked up on food and supplies.
Mike Petriella, 36, who's lived in Battery Park City for a year and a half, also vowed to stay put with his wife, who is eight months pregnant.
"We feel safe where we are," said Petriella, who stocked up on water and bough a flashlight, a radio and extra batteries to weather out the storm.
"We're taking precautions. We're not taking it lightly," he assured.
The latest forecast has the center of the storm, which has killed at least three people in Virginia and North Carolina, hitting east of the city. Winds of 40 mph or higher expected to begin around 9 p.m., when officials want all residents off the streets.
All airports are closed as of 10 p.m. Saturday and some 2,000 National Guard troops were mobilized. Armored vehicles lined up on Lexington Avenue and 26th Street. The lower level of the George Washington Bridge was closed shortly after 9 p.m.
Officials warned residents to brace for disaster as the storm swept closer Saturday, and urged people like Gaschler and Petriella to rethink their plans.
“This is a storm where if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can be fatal,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters at the Office of Emergency Management headquarters in Brooklyn late Saturday afternoon.
He pleaded with residents to evacuate immediately if they're in a Zone A evacuation zone, despite a public transit shutdown that began hours ago.
"Time is running out," he said, urging residents to use any form of transportation, including hailing down police cars and even hitchhiking, to get to higher ground.
“Even if you have to walk, evacuate now," he said.
So far, 5,500 people have checked into shelters city-wide, far below their 70,000-plus capacity, officials said.
Still, volunteers at the Grand Street shelter reported that they are full, in terms of sleeping cots, and are getting school buses ready to transport evacuees to a back-up shelter at 131 Hester St.
Veronica, 22 and Tania, 19, two new FIT students who just arrived from California, were among those who planned to spend the night at the Grand Street shelter. The roommates had just moved into an apartment on Water Street Downtown and spent just four nights there before being forced out.
"We are sleeping on cots," said Veronica, who described the shelter as well-organized, with a heavy police presence and a mix of people — from the homeless to those with nice laptops. There's also a separate room for pets, where her dog, Manolo, can sleep.
"He is making lots of friends," Tania joked.
In addition to the initial impact of the storm, Bloomberg warned parts of lower Manhattan could be without power and under water after the hurricane blows through New York.
"It's conceivable that in downtown Manhattan, there will be no electricity as well as water in the streets," Bloomberg warned at a briefing near Coney Island Saturday morning, where police officers could be heard in the distance barking evacuation orders over loudspeakers.
ConEd officials confirmed that thousands of people in lower Manhattan, living and working south of the Brooklyn Bridge and east of Broadway, could be left in the dark for up to three days if the utility is forced to shut down two of its networks to protect them from the seawater.
"We could be dealing with a situation where we're going to pre-emptively shut down those networks in order to prevent damage," said John Miksad, senior vice president of electric operations at ConEd.
“Salt water and electricity do not mix well," he said.
Once shut down, Miksad said getting buildings back online could take between two to three days, as crews wait for the water to recede and then visit 250 locations to pump out basements, inspect and test equipment and make necessary repairs.
Staff are monitoring the situation with the help of video cameras, and expect to make a final decision between 2 a.m and 10 a.m. Sunday.
Despite the threats, inside the evacuation zones, the mood was calm. Streets in Battery Park City were deserted and stores and restaurants along South End Avenue propped sandbags up against their doors and taped up their windows, promising their customers in hand-scrawled notes that they would reopen on Monday.
All entrances to the esplanade and waterfront green spaces were blocked off with yellow caution tape, though joggers, cyclists and a few curious shutterbugs ducked the barrier to approach the railing and peer out at the rising water.
Of the few people walking on the streets and sidewalks, some were stragglers hailing cabs and some were residents who were determined to remain in their homes, but most were tourists who had wandered over from the World Trade Center site or their hotels farther afield, hoping to glimpse the spectacle.
Alex Sechin and Kristina Likhovid visiting from Canada, said they were supposed to leave New York today but extended their trip to stay for the storm. They came to Battery Park City to take pictures, hoping to see some flooding.
"We've never seen a natural disaster before. We decided to stay to see the craziness," said Likhovid, 25. "It's intimidating, but it's exciting."
Sechin, 32, said it's actually a great time to be a tourist in Manhattan. "There are no traffic jams."
Just after noon, the MTA shut down the city's transit system, just as the first rain bands of Irene moved into the area. Police tape was stretched over the turnstiles at the subway entrance at Grand Central Terminal. At Penn Station, the big board was full of cancelled trains. Elsewhere, people made a mad dash to try to catch the last trains.
Rebecca Weisz, 20, lives in Bushwick and was trying to catch the last L train home at Eighth Avenue. She didn't make it.
"I don't have any friends in Manhattan," Weisz said. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I guess I'll try to walk for now, but it's going to get bad, fast."
Rob Pike, 30, who lives in Newark, N.J., caught one of the last uptown 6 trains so he could ride out the storm with friends in East Harlem.
He brought along his guinea pigs Oliver and Squirell.
"That was the last train but I knew I would make it," said Pike. "It's better to be with friends than alone and letting the mind play tricks."
The MTA said trains and buses were still making their final runs at roughly an hour past the deadline.
"It seems to be running smoothly at this point," an MTA spokesman said of the shutdown.
Down in lower Manhattan, parts of which were under orders from Bloomberg to evacuate, people on the Fulton Street subway platforms were desperate to get to their final destinations to ride out the storm.
"I'm scared to death right now," said Victoria Mitchell-Easterling, 44, of the Bronx, who managed to catch the last C train to Brooklyn. "I want to be with my family."
More than 370,000 people who live in Zone A, sections of the city that are at the highest risk for storm surge flooding in a hurricane, and some Zone B ares in the Rockaways, had until 5 p.m. Saturday to evacuate. Residents can find out what zone they live in by checking the city's hurricane evacuation map.
"Let's stop thinking that this is something that we can play with," the mayor said. "Staying behind is dangerous. Staying behind is foolish. And it's against the law."
ConEd shut off steam to 50 customers in Manhattan, mostly south of Canal Street, to prevent potential danger.
If steam mixes with storm water, they warned, “It can break through the pipes and cause explosion and damage and injury."
The NYPD sent police officers out with loudspeakers to tell residents of Zone A they needed to move to higher ground.
Bloomberg warned residents to prepare for a power failure by filling tubs and sinks with drinking water, in case pumps fail, and to prepare flashlights and charge phones now.
He dismissed concerns about looting in evacuated areas.
“This is New York. We don’t have that sort of thing," he said, adamantly. “I don’t expect that to be an issue. That’s just not the New York of today.”
Still, the police department is planning to set up security patrols in the evacuated areas, officials have said.
On Avenue D, police officers lined the street telling people to get out.
In Zone A, many of the buildings that needed to be evacuated were owned by the New York City Housing Authority. Many residents, however, were refusing to leave, instead voting to sit out the storm.
NYCHA said it would be turning off elevators at 3:30 p.m. to avoid people getting trapped in them should the power go out. Fung Wah buses transported people from the Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald Houses on Avenue D in the East Village to an evacuation shelter at Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side.
Earlier in the day, workers dropped off food and supplies at the Grand Street school. On the menu for evacuees: Bread, milk, chocolate milk, corn, ravioli, cereal, juice, peaches, potato chips, water, and peanut butter and jelly.
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.
For those planning to stay, here's what you need to know:
• Call 911 for emergencies only. Call 311 to report all other problems. 311 is also looking for volunteers to man their call centers.
• Make sure all balconies and outdoor spaces are clear of chairs, barbecues, debris and other items that might become airborne during the storm.
• Visit the city's storm plan website if you need to find an evacuation center.
• If you live in evacuation Zone A, here's what you need to know.