With Hurricane Irene pushing relentlessly toward the East Coast, New York City began evacuating hospitals and nursing homes in low-lying areas on Friday morning, and the National Weather Service issued a hurricane watch for the city, Long Island and Connecticut and a hurricane warning for much of New Jersey.
City Room: City Web Site Overloaded as Hurricane Nears (August 26, 2011)
City Room: Preparing for Irene: Where to Get Advice and Information (August 25, 2011)
Mass transit officials also were preparing for a possible shutdown, starting on Saturday, of their entire system — the subways and buses in New York City as well as the commuter rail lines in the suburbs. And state officials continued arrangements for coordinating emergency services and restoring electricity if the storm does the kind of damage many fear.
Those preparations came as homeowners scrambled to cover windows with plywood and boaters struggled to get their vessels away from docks. In Manhattan, apartment dwellers with balconies and terraces hauled in patio furniture and potted plants, and stores ran short on staples like batteries, flashlights and bottled water. In shore towns on Long Island and in New Jersey, vacationers waited in lines at gasoline stations and watched as emergency crews piled sandbags on low-lying beach roads.
The hurricane watch for the city was a formal indication that forecasters saw a potential threat within 24 to 36 hours. It was issued 14 hours after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said the city was ready with “evacuation contingencies” for low-lying places like Coney Island in Brooklyn, Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan and parts of Staten Island and the Rockaways in Queens — areas that are home to 250,000 people.
The mayor said Thursday that the city was ordering nursing homes and hospitals in those areas to evacuate residents and patients beginning at 8 a.m. Friday unless they receive special permission from state and city health officials, among them the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, who, the mayor noted, was chairman of the community health sciences department at Tulane University when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.
The evacuation order covers 22 hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities for older people.
The city also ordered construction work halted until 7 a.m. Monday. With the worst of the storm expected on a weekend, a time when relatively few construction crews would normally be on the job, the Buildings Department said Friday that its inspectors were checking construction sites to see that equipment had been secured. The department said it would check over the weekend that builders complied with the no-work order.
Anticipation of the hurricane disrupted other rituals of late summer. New York University postponed its move-in day for undergraduates, which had been scheduled for Sunday, James Devitt, a university spokesman, said. Students will not be able to move into university housing until Monday. Mr. Devitt said about 5,000 undergraduates typically arrive on move-in day. The delay does not affect students who live off campus in housing not owned by the university, he said.
At a City Hall briefing on Thursday evening, the mayor said the five hospitals in the low-lying areas were reducing their caseloads and canceling elective surgeries on Friday to be ready for emergencies over the weekend. One, Coney Island Hospital, is to begin moving patients to vacant beds in other parts of the city on Friday, he said.
Mr. Bloomberg said he would decide by Saturday morning whether to order a general evacuation of the low-lying areas.
He also said he was revoking permits for events in the city on Sunday and in the low-lying areas on Saturday. The Sunday cancellations apparently included a concert on Governors Island by the Dave Matthews Band. A statement on the band’s Web site said people with tickets for that show should attend the Friday or Saturday performance. But the Web site said to check for updates on Friday.
The mayor said 300 street fairs over the weekend “would have to be curtailed” to keep streets clear for hurricane-related transportation — ambulances carrying patients to nursing homes or hospitals on higher ground, buses and city-owned trucks moving to where they would be ready for duty once the hurricane had swept by.
Mr. Bloomberg said people should stay out of parks because high winds could bring down trees. “And incidentally,” he said, “it’s a good idea to stay out of your own backyard if you have trees there.”
The mayor cautioned that forecasts were not always accurate and that the hurricane, a sprawling storm still far away, could become weaker.
“We’re talking about something that is a long time away in meteorological terms,” he said, “so what we have to do is assume the worst, prepare for that, and hope for the best.”
That seemed to be the official mantra from South Jersey to coastal Connecticut on Thursday. In East Hampton, N.Y., crews removed sidewalk benches so they would not blow away if Hurricane Irene howled through. In Long Beach, N.Y., maintenance crews used a different kind of defensive maneuver, building up berms that they hoped would block the waves.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie told shore-area residents hoping to sit out the storm that “it is not the smart thing to do.” He said people who were thinking about a weekend along the coast should think again.
“Do not go,” he said.
Mr. Christie also urged people on barrier islands to leave. “Right now, I’m asking people to do this voluntarily,” he said. “I am actively considering a mandatory evacuation, but I’m not there yet.”
Officials elsewhere echoed his concern about areas closest to the Atlantic Ocean. On Long Island, the Islip town supervisor, Phil Nolan, called for a voluntary evacuation of Fire Island “to avoid a rush of people as the storm nears Long Island.”
Cape May County, N.J., went a step further, ordering everyone out. Evacuations of its barrier islands began on Thursday afternoon. People on the mainland were told to leave beginning at 8 a.m. on Friday, said Lenora Boninfante, the county communications director.
In the northern part of the state, the Jets-Giants game at MetLife Stadium was changed to 2 p.m. Saturday from 7 p.m. because of concerns about the weather.
Back in the city, Mr. Bloomberg, along with Joseph F. Bruno, the commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, instructed residents to take preliminary steps: stock up on basic supplies, identify an alternative place to sleep in the event of an evacuation and prepare a “go bag” of essentials to allow for a rapid departure, if necessary.
As for a transit shutdown, Jay H. Walder, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said his agency could not guarantee the safety of passengers if winds remained above 39 miles per hour for a sustained period. He said it could take up to eight hours to shut down the system, meaning that transit planners may have to make a judgment call on Saturday, well before the full force of the storm is felt.
And because it takes the agency several hours to restart trains and buses, a shutdown could last through early Monday, if not longer. “It’s hard to predict when it will come back,” Mr. Walder said, “because I can’t really predict for you exactly what will happen in the storm.”
In the event of a shutdown, Mr. Walder said, the transportation authority will aid in evacuation efforts.
Mr. Bloomberg warned New Yorkers to heed any evacuation call as quickly as possible, in case mass-transit options were unavailable.
Certain low-lying areas of the subway system are particularly susceptible to flooding, in Lower Manhattan and on exposed tracks in parts of Brooklyn. Overhead catenary cables, which provide power to commuter rail lines in the suburbs north and east of the city, can be knocked down by winds, and stations on elevated routes could be dangerous for the trains and for passengers waiting to catch them.
Still, against the drumbeat of plans and announcements from officials on Thursday, some all but disregarded the hurricane talk. Dave Merklin of Freeport, N.Y., said he was doing “practically nothing, because I’ve been through so many of these storms.”
“I’ve lived in this house for 40 years,” he said. “I wait until the storm is gone, and then I clean up the mess. I don’t do much in the way of preparation except make sure the doors are closed.”