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New York orders first-ever mass storm evacuation

27 august 2011, 11:41
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Friday ordered an unprecedented mass evacuation and the closure of the subway as millions of Americans along the east coast battened down for Hurricane Irene, AFP reports.

US President Barack Obama cut short his summer vacation and urged Americans in the path of the storm to take immediate action, saying "all indications point to this being a historic hurricane."

The Category Two hurricane, packing winds of 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour, was set to slam into the coast of North Carolina on Saturday before churning up the eastern seaboard towards Washington, New York and Boston.

The densely populated corridor, home to more than 65 million people, was under the threat of flooding, storm surges, power outages and destruction that experts said could cost up to $12 billion.

Bloomberg told a news conference he had ordered the first-ever mass evacuations from low-lying areas across the densely populated city that are home to some 250,000 people, calling it a "matter of life or death."

"We have never done a mandatory evacuation before, and we wouldn't be doing this now if we didn't think the storm had the potential to be very serious," Bloomberg said.

Authorities had earlier announced that New York's massive transit system would begin to shut down midday Saturday in another rare move that could hinder transport into Monday's rush hour.

The wind-driven seawater could swell already high new moon tides, sending a storm surge up the Hudson river that could swamp lower Manhattan and the city's underground train system.

New York state meanwhile said major links into the city would be cut if winds exceeded 60 miles per hour, as predicted, and authorities called up 900 National Guard troops and 2,500 power workers to prepare for emergency repair work, the largest ever deployment.

Neighboring New Jersey on Thursday ordered 750,000 people out of the Cape May area.

Late Friday, Hurricane Irene was around 180 miles southwest of North Carolina, where rain and tropical storm-force winds were already pummeling the coast, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.

It said Irene had weakened slightly and would lose strength once it hit land on Saturday, but would remain a hurricane as it passed over or near the mid-Atlantic Saturday night before churning north towards Canada.

Irene's approach stirred painful memories of Hurricane Katrina, which smashed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, stranding thousands of people in New Orleans and overwhelming poorly-prepared local and federal authorities.

The popular North Carolina beach resort of Kill Devil Hills was a ghost town Friday, as forecasters predicted up to 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain in some places and the first power outages were reported.

"We haven't seen a hurricane threat like this in quite a few decades," Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman from the National Weather Service, told AFP.

"This is going to be a very long weekend for the residents of the Mid-Atlantic and the northeast."

Irene will be accompanied by an "extremely dangerous" storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 3.4 meters (11 feet), the NHC said.

"We're ordering all of our citizens off the coast," North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue said, noting that the state could not forcibly eject holdouts but would leave them "at the mercy of themselves and the storm."

Further north in Washington, residents packed into supermarkets to stock up on emergency supplies, cleaning out shelves of bottled water and batteries.

And in New York's City Island in the Bronx, local boat owners scrambled to pull vessels out of the water.

Hurricanes are rare in the northeastern United States -- the last major hurricane to hit New York was Gloria in 1985.

Obama has spoken with senior emergency officials and local authorities to coordinate federal help, but he warned people to take immediate precautions.

"If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now. Don't wait. Don't delay," he said.

The US military said up to 101,000 National Guard soldiers were available if needed and designated military bases in three states as staging areas.

Ships with the navy's Second Fleet sailed out of their home port in Virginia to ride out the storm at a safe distance, and aircraft cleared off the tarmac at air force bases in three states.

By Brigitte Dusseau

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