The governors of New York and New Jersey declared states of emergency Thursday as Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged city residents in low-lying areas to find high ground ahead of possible evacuations this weekend as Hurricane Irene barreled toward the East Coast.
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service said a hurricane watch was in effect from the Virgina/North Carolina border to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
Governors Andrew Cuomo and Chris Christie issued state of emergencies in New York and New Jersey, respectively, in advance of the storm on Thursday so they can deploy resources such as the National Guard to counties and municipalities.
Christie said the storm track calls for New Jersey to be hit with a "serious, significant event." Cape May County, the state's southernmost county, ordered mandatory evacuations Thursday — saying residents must leave barrier islands by the end of the day nd those on the mainland must be out by Friday.
Meanwhile, in the city the mayor said he would decide by 8am Saturday whether to order the evacuation of residents in the high flood-prone area known as Zone-A ahead of Sunday when the storm is expected to lash the city and surrounding areas with heavy rain and up to 60 mph winds. Bloomberg noted the city would feel the effect of Irene during the early hours of Sunday morning, based on the latest forecast.
The mayor did order the evacuation of the most vulnerable New Yorkers, such as those in hospitals, nursing homes and senior centers, in Zone-A by 8pm Friday. The city will allow exceptions, based on recommendations from city and state officials.
"We're trying to take precautions for the most vulnerable," Bloomberg said. "As we get closer to the arrival of the hurricane, for the general public we can do what is appropriate." Bloomberg did encourage people in low-lying areas to leave Friday night, if they had somewhere else to stay, to reduce the overall number of people that might need to be evacuated Saturday, should events warrant.
The at-risk areas, known as Zone-A, includes Battery Park City in Manhattan, Coney Island in Brooklyn and Far Rockaway in Queens.
"We want to take an abundance of caution. This storm is predicted to be very dangerous," Bloomberg said. He also revoked all permits for city street events on Sunday and events in low lying areas on Saturday to leave roads open for emergency vehicles and buses, in case people have to evacuate.
Bloomberg added that emergency shelters will open by 4pm Friday.
Irene strengthened to a major Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph on Wednesday. Forecasters predicted the storm strengthen into a Category 4 hurricane Thursday before making landfall in North Carolina over the weekend.
"By the time Irene gets to us, which is forecasted to do sometime on Sunday, it certainly will still be a powerful storm – possibly as strong as a Category 2 hurricane on Long Island, but anything can happen in terms of its direction and its severity," Bloomberg said Thursday.
Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Bruno said in addition to possible evacuations, the city was also preparing for a worst-case scenario of a hurricane with winds greater than 72 mph reaching the city.
Workers are cleaning out catch basins to help with street drainage, and the city has moved police boats to station houses in many areas, topped off emergency generators with fuel and hired forest contractors.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said he had requested the state's emergency response team to begin preparing for Irene to impact the state on Sunday. He also urged New Yorkers to take stock of their emergency supplies and check in with neighbors, the elderly and the disabled who might need assistance.
The storm's projected path has shifted to the east, and flooding and power outages could be felt along the East Coast as far north as Maine, officials warned.
It's been seven years since a major storm — Hurricane Jeanne, a Category 3 — slammed into the East Coast. The last hurricane to hit the U.S. was Ike in 2008.
With the Associated Press