POSTED: 3:15 p.m. HST, Aug 26, 2011
NEW YORK >> The nation's biggest subway system was ordered shut down as Hurricane Irene bore down today, potentially paralyzing movement for millions of carless people even as more than 300,000 were told to evacuate to safer places.
The unprecedented orders from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which affect New Yorkers from the Bronx's most distant reaches down through Manhattan and out to the beaches of Brooklyn and Queens, dealt the congested metropolis a formidable logistical challenge that raised more questions than it resolved:
Where are all of those people in New York's flood-prone areas supposed to go? And, more pointedly, how are they going to get there — especially since many don't own a car?
Subways, buses and trains in one of the world's largest public transportation systems were to stop running at noon Saturday. Bridges and tunnels also could be closed as the storm approaches, clogging traffic in an already congested city.
Officials hoped most residents would stay with family and friends, and for the rest the city opened nearly 100 shelters with a capacity of 71,000 people.
Many people scoffed at the danger and vowed to ride it out at home.
"How can I get out of Coney Island? What am I going to do? Run with this walker?" said 82-year-old Abe Feinstein, who has lived since the early 1960s on the eighth floor of a building that overlooks the famed Coney Island boardwalk.
He said he watched Hurricane Gloria in 1985 from an apartment down the street.
"I think I have nothing to worry about," he said. "I've been through bad weather before. It's just not going to be a problem for us."
Irene was expected to make landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, then roll up the I-95 corridor reaching New York on Sunday. A hurricane warning was issued for the city this afternoon, the first time that's happened since Gloria.
If the storm stays on its current path, skyscraper windows could shatter, tree limbs would fall and debris would be tossed around. Streets in southern tip of the city could be under a few feet of water, and police readied rescue boats but said they wouldn't go out if conditions were poor.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was confident people would get out of the storm's way.
"We do not have the manpower to go door-to-door and drag people out of their homes," he said. "Nobody's going to get fined. Nobody's going to go to jail. But if you don't follow this, people might die."
Several New York landmarks were under the evacuation order, including the Battery Park City area, where tourists catch ferries to the Statue of Liberty. Construction was stopping throughout the city, and workers at the site of the World Trade Center were dismantling a crane and securing equipment. Bloomberg said there would be no effect on the Sept. 11 memorial opening the day after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Sporting events, concerts and even Broadway were going dark.
In Lower Manhattan, Milton Melendez and partner Shea Collins were headed to uptown to a neighborhood north of Little Italy. Melendez, who survived Hurricane David as a child in the Dominican Republic, was worried about windows being blown out at their apartment. Collins was a little more blasi.
"This is the same thing as a snowstorm," she said. "They say there's going to be 10 feet and there's four inches."
Bloomberg weathered criticism after a Dec. 26 storm dumped nearly two feet of snow that seemed to catch officials by surprise. Subway trains, buses and ambulances got stuck in the snow, some for hours, and streets were impassable for days. Bloomberg ultimately called it an "inadequate and unacceptable" response.
This time officials weren't taking any chances. Transit officials said they can't run once sustained winds reach 39 mph, and they need eight hours to move trains and equipment to safety.
The subway system won't reopen until at least Monday, after pumps remove water from flooded stations. Even on a dry day, about 200 pump rooms remove between 13 million to 15 million gallons of water that seeps into the tunnels deep underground.
Still, not everyone was worried.
Probir Roy, a Bangladesh native who was waiting for a bus to New Jersey, went through a tsunami when he was 10.
"I'm not scared. It's my wife," said the Wall Street manager, who was traveling to Clifton, N.J. "I'm going by bus. She took my car."
There are about 1.6 million people in Manhattan and about 6.8 million in the city's other four boroughs.
Bloomberg warned residents not to be fooled by the sunny weather today and said police officers would use loudspeakers on patrol vehicles to spread the word about the evacuation.
At the Red Hook Lobster Pound facing the New York Harbor, owner Ralph Gorham had about $26,000 worth of lobster stored in a refrigerator, plus a tank filled with live crustaceans from Maine. "I'm staying," he said. "But if we get, say, a few feet of water in here, it'll be a huge loss."
For those with cars, parking was available at the city's evacuation centers. From there, each family will be assigned to a shelter and taken there by bus.
In the Queens community of the Rockaways, more than 111,000 people live on a barrier peninsula connected to the city by two bridges and to Long Island to the west.
The city's public transit system carries about 5 million passengers on an average weekday, and the entire system has never before been halted because of natural disaster. It was seriously hobbled by an August 2007 rainstorm that disabled or delayed every one of the city's subway lines. And it was shut down after the 9/11 attacks and during a 2005 strike.
"It's possible to evacuate without going very far," said John Nielsen-Gammon, a Texas A&M University meteorologist who has been involved in disaster planning in his role as the state climatologist. "The big wild card for New York is the fact that nobody there is used to a hurricane and can't rely on common sense or past experience as a guide. And what we learned from evacuations in Houston is that people rely on their friends and their own experience as much as, or more than, they rely on public officials."
Glenn Corbett, a professor who teaches in the emergency management program at the city's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he was startled at how early the city planned to halt subways.
"You can tell people to do things, and that doesn't actually mean they're going to do it until the last possible moment. And then what?" he said.
In the last 200 years, New York has seen only a few significant hurricanes. In September of 1821, a hurricane raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded the southernmost tip of Manhattan in an area that now includes Wall Street and the World Trade Center memorial. In 1938, a storm dubbed the Long Island Express came ashore about 75 miles east of the city on neighboring Long Island and then hit New England, killing 700 people and leaving 63,000 homeless. And in 1944, an area was flooded in Midtown, where Times Square, Broadway theaters and the Empire State Building are located.
Workers at the North Cove marina were busy anchoring down boats or getting ready to set sail up the Hudson River. A number of yachts were leaving.
"It's going to be boats versus concrete and I don't think fiberglass is going to win," said Elizabeth Pellatte, the deck supervisor and assistant to the owner of the $35 million Remember When yacht. "It will be worth the $10,000 in gas to save $1 million in damage."
Ordinarily, the boat is based in Florida.
"We spend summers up here usually to escape the hurricanes but this time, one followed us," she said.
Associated Press writers Jonathan M. Katz, Larry Neumeister and Jennifer Peltz in New York and Michael Virtanen in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.