Hurricane Irene: New York hunkers down for a dark, wet weekend
The skies may have been blue and the beaches sunny at midday Friday, but the biggest city in America was bracing for a dark, wet weekend -- and a severe lashing -- if Hurricane Irene heads up the East Coast to New York.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has demanded that all residents of nursing homes, hospitals and psychiatric wards along the coastal areas of the city be transferred to higher ground by 8 Friday night.
Those facilities started evacuating early Friday morning in the wake of his order. Coney Island Hospital, for example, had 241 patients, including 24 from the Intensive Care unit, wheeled into ambulances and transferred to in-land hospitals.
The states of New York and New Jersey have declared a state of emergency, giving officials authority to enforce any precautions they deem necessary.
In the meantime, officials of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which controls the area's massive system of subways, trains, buses and bridges, has called for clearing drains and moving equipment and supplies to safer areas.
It also warned of a worst-case scenario that would involve shutting down the entire system by 6 p.m. Saturday because of a fear of flooding. Such a move would be unprecedented in recent history except during blackouts and could affect as many as 2 million people.
"Because of the severity of the wind and rain associated with a hurricane, there may be partial or full shut down of our services to ensure the safety of our customers and employees," the MTA announced on its website. "We are also prepared to implement evacuation plans if the Mayor and Governor decide that is necessary. We urge our customers to check mta.info frequently and to consider the impacts of this storm when making travel plans through the weekend."
View Hurricane Irene track forecast in a larger map
A variety of planned weekend events -- including street fairs and freshmen-move-in at local universities -- have already been canceled.
In Great Kill, Staten Island, residents were raiding grocery stores for food, water and batteries, and Bloomberg reminded people that, while they're buying supplies and preparing "go bags," they should hit the cash machines in case electrical power outages shut them down.
Airlines, particularly at JFK International, which is close to the beach, were delaying flights and bringing in shuttle buses so that travelers who get stranded don't have to sleep on those uncomfortable benches and live on potato chips and soda while they wait for a flight.
There were tidbits of good news: New Yorkers don't have to feed parking meters this weekend. And people may be hearing from long-lost relatives and friends who reside in coastal areas; the mayor urged them to find temporary quarters even if it meant making a call they wouldn't ordinarily make.
On Rockaway Beach, surfers were getting in some last rides Friday morning, though several of them told local television station New York 1 that, if the waves get too rough, they'll get going.
The New York Police Department wasn't taking any chances that not everyone will listen to all the cautionary advice. It was moving about 50 police boats to precincts near the most vulnerable areas in case some New Yorkers get stranded. The police were also commandeering extra buses so that if subways aren't running, emergency workers can get to the city's main 911 operation in Brooklyn.
"We need to be able to get the right people in the right places so they can do their jobs," said Paul Browne, deputy police commissioner.
But for all the fear and loathing in Gotham, something more important was in the air that paled in comparison to a mere hurricane barrelling toward the city: On Thursday night, the Yankees hit three grand slams -- something that had never been done before in baseball history.
Take that, Irene!
--Geraldine Baum in New York
Photo: Private ambulances prepare to transfer patients from Coney Island Hospital as evacuations begin in low-lying areas of New York City. Credit: AFP Photo / Timothy A. Clary