NEW YORK (AP) — More than 300,000 people were told Friday to evacuate and New York ordered buses, planes and its entire subway system shut down as Hurricane Irene marched up the East Coast.
It was the first time part of the nation's largest city was evacuated. And never before has the entire mass transit system been shuttered because of a storm.
Despite not knowing how the city would react, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was confident people would get out of the storm's way.
"Waiting until the last minute is not a smart thing to do," Bloomberg said. "This is life-threatening."
Irene was expected to make landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, then roll along the East Coast before hitting near Manhattan on Sunday.
A hurricane warning was issued for the city Friday afternoon and forecasters said if the storm stays on its current path, skyscraper windows could shatter and debris will be tossed around. Streets in southern tip of the city could be under a few feet of water. Bloomberg warned people to stay inside when Irene does hit.
Several New York landmarks were under the evacuation order, including the Battery Park City area, where tourists catch ferries to the Statue of Liberty, and Coney Island, famed for its boardwalk and amusement park. The beachfront community of Rockaways and other neighborhoods around the city were also told to be out by Saturday at 5 p.m.
"I would think that the vast bulk will comply," Bloomberg said of the evacuation order. "Unfortunately, there's a handful who will not comply until it's too late. And at that point in time, you can really get stuck."
Eighty-two-year-old Abe Feinstein, who has lived in Coney Island since the early 1960s, said he wasn't going anywhere.
"How can I get out of Coney Island? What am I going to do? Run with this walker?" Feinstein said.
The retiree lives on the eighth floor of a building that overlooks the boardwalk; his daughter lives on the third floor. Feinstein 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."
Other initial signs indicated no sense of urgency. By early Friday evening, two evacuation shelters in the Coney Island area were still empty. Nearly 100 shelters were set to open, with a capacity of 71,000 people. The city said it could open more if needed, but officials believed many people would stay with friends or family.
The city began evacuating nursing homes and five hospitals Thursday. Getting the rest of the hundreds of thousands of people out will be particularly difficult. In all, New York has about 1.6 million people in Manhattan and about 6.8 million in the city's other four boroughs.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said they can't run the transit system 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.
Pumps will have to remove water from flooded subway stations. Even on a dry day, about 200 pump rooms remove between 13 million to 15 million gallons of water from the subway system because water seeps into the tunnels, which run from just below street level to 180 feet underground.
Bridges could also be closed as the storm approaches, clogging traffic in an already congested city.
The city faced its first hurricane since 1985 when Gloria hit Long Island as a Category 2 storm with winds gusts of up to 100 mph. Irene is expected to be a Category 1, with winds of at least 74 mph, when it hits New York.
The mayor warned residents not to be fooled by the sunny weather Friday and said police officers would use loudspeakers on patrol vehicles to spread the word about the evacuation.
"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."
Construction was stopping. Workers were securing scaffolding and crews at the site of the World Trade Center dismantled a crane. Bloomberg said there would be no affect on the Sept. 11 memorial opening. Concerts and other events were canceled.
In a city where many residents don't own a car, Bloomberg said he still believed officials could handle any overflow of the transit system.
"Nobody expects you to go walk 10 miles," he said. "You'll get to the shelter, it's our responsibility and we think that we can handle it."
The evacuation posed a logistical challenge. For those with cars, parking is available at the city's evacuation centers. From there, each family will be assigned to a shelter. Buses will run from the evacuation centers to the shelters.
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. There is no subway service there.
The MTA has never before halted its entire system — which carries about 5 million passengers on an average weekday — before a storm, though it was seriously hobbled by an August 2007 rainstorm that disabled or delayed every one of the city's subway lines. The last planned shutdown of the entire transit system was during a 2005 strike.
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 all of Manhattan south of Canal Street, the southernmost tip of the city. The area 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.
Virtanen reported from Albany, N.Y.
Samantha Gross can be reached at www.twitter.com/samanthagross