In a first, US transit system stalls, evacuation under way

New York: In unprecedented preparations to brave out the Hurricane Irene, New York authorities evacuated a quarter of a million residents and ordered complete shutdown of the mass transit system as Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters were placed on standby for a weekend of torrential rains and massive storms.

As Hurricane Irene closed in on the US East Coast, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered evacuation of 250,000 people in low-lying areas of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Neighbouring New Jersey ordered evacuation of 750,000 people out of the Cape May area.

In another first-of-its-kind decision, the authorities said they will shut down the entire transit system - a total of 468 subway stations, 840 miles of rail tracks, buses and commuter trains.

 In a first, US transit system stalls, evacuation under way

A sign along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway near the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel advises residents to evacuate the city as Hurricane Irene begins to strike the East Coast, in New York. Robert Stolarik/The New York Times

New York's mass transit system, which carries 8.5 million people on any given weekday, would bring into effect a "system-wide shut- down" at noon on Saturday.

"We have never done a mandatory evacuation before and we would not be doing it now if we did not think this storm had the potential to be very serious," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a news conference.

"You only have to look at the weather maps to understand how big this storm is and how unique it is and it is heading basically for us," Bloomberg said.

Essential food supplies, medicine, water, batteries and flashlights flew off the shelves at departmental stores as New Yorkers lined up to refill their stockpile.

A sour experience with Hurricane Katrina meant that authorities were leaving no stone unturned this time around for Irene.

The New York Army and Air National Guard would deploy up to 900 soldiers and airmen and over 100 vehicles to support civil authorities. About 175 extra ambulances and personnel will be deployed in regions expected to be hit the hardest by the storm.

Additionally, a total of 12,466 airmen and soldiers, more than 680 vehicles, 16 Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, four Chinook helicopters, 10 cargo aircraft and six Pavehawk rescue helicopters are ready to respond if called upon for assistance, surveillance, search and rescue, and post-storm damage assessment, Cuomo added.

"Do not be fooled by the sun outside—that is the calm before the storm," Bloomberg said referring to a sunny Friday. "You cannot wait until there are gale force winds and driving rains arrive. It will be too late then. You have to start your preparations to leave right now." National Hurricane Shelter said as of Friday, Irene was around 265 miles southwest of North Carolina.

It is expected to arrive in the New York area as a Category 1 hurricane, with winds of 74 miles an hour on Sunday. The storm could dump 8-12 inches of rain in the city, leading to potential flooding. Bloomberg said 91 evacuation centers and shelters have been set up across the city. Some New York hospitals in flood-prone areas were already evacuating patients. Thousands of weekend flights were cancelled in anticipation of the storm.

Cuomo had convened an emergency cabinet meeting to take stock of the state's emergency response system.
He coordinated the state government-wide mobilization of resources to prepare for the storm and mitigate the potential effects of the hurricane. Cuomo said if wind speeds exceed 60 mph, New York's main bridges including the George Washington bridge, Tappan Zee bridge and Hudson River bridges will be closed to traffic.

The state's major highways would also be closed. "We have moved quickly to initiate our emergency plans, to work with our federal and local partners, and to identify, prepare, and put into place one of the most aggressive activations of New York State government ever assembled in the face of a possible natural disaster," Cuomo said here. "We are fully committed and we are preparing for the worst."

PTI

Updated Date: Aug 27, 2011 12:54:06 IST