NEW YORK — Nearly 300,000 New York City residents were told today to get out of their homes in a first-ever mandatory evacuation as officials ordered an unprecedented shutdown of the city’s mass transit system for Saturday in advance of Hurricane Irene, raising the prospect of a singular scramble as hundreds of thousands of residents try to get out of the massive storm’s way.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered an evacuation by 5 p.m. Saturday for low-lying areas that house about 270,000 people. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said subways, buses and commuter trains in the city, on Long Island and in the northern suburbs will begin their final runs around noon Saturday.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have said they can’t run the transit system once sustained winds reach 39 mph, and they need an eight-hour lead time to shut it down. Officials have entreated residents to take it upon themselves to get out early, but it remained unclear how many would heed the warnings that subways and buses might not be there for them if they waited.
Meanwhile, shelters were set to open and other preparations continued as the nation’s biggest city faced the likelihood of its first hurricane warning since 1985. A hurricane watch was in effect Friday for New York City and Long Island for Sunday, with storm conditions possible Saturday night.
State Director of Operations Howard Glaser said the noon shutdown should provide “sufficient capacity” to get residents out of vulnerable areas. Cuomo said the decision would keep subways and buses “out of harm’s way” so service can return as soon as possible after the storm.
The MTA has never before halted its entire system — which carries about 5 million passengers on an average weekday — in advance of a storm, though the system 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.
Said MTA Chairman Jay Walder, “We’re working forward on a plan that will do two things: It will help effectuate the evacuation … and it will protect the safety of our customers and protect the safety of our equipment.”