NEW YORK (AP) -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered mandatory evacuations of the sick and elderly and officials began preparations to shut down the nation's largest mass transit system Thursday, as Hurricane Irene increasingly appeared to be headed directly for New York City.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency and directed state agencies to prepare to help, as officials from the eastern tip of Long Island to New York City and its northern suburbs warned residents to gather basic supplies.
"What we have to do is assume the worst, prepare for that, and hope for the best," Bloomberg said at New York's City Hall. "Instead of going across the eastern portion of Long Island it now appears that it will reach our area closer to eastern Queens" as a Category 1 hurricane, he said.
State police were getting aviation, marine, dive, and communications units ready if needed, and the Division of Military and Naval Affairs was developing plans to put hundreds of troops on duty for work with state and city agencies, the governor's office said.
Bloomberg ordered the five hospitals in the low-lying areas of the city known as "Zone A" to complete mandatory evacuations by Friday at 8 p.m., along with homes for the aged and nursing homes. He urged homebound residents in the zone to use the city's dial-a-ride system for the disabled to evacuate on Friday as well.
The mayor said he expected the city would shut down its entire transit system at some point Saturday afternoon, with buses subways and trains unlikely to be available again until sometime Monday and perhaps later, depending on the extent of damage.
The system can't be safely operated with sustained winds of 39 mph or more, said Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Jay Walder. Trains and buses must cease normal operations at least eight hours before those winds arrive, in order to move all MTA equipment from low-lying storage areas and secure trains in protected areas, including in the system's underground tunnels, he said.
Bloomberg urged the roughly 270,000 people living in Zone A, which includes Coney Island in Brooklyn, Far Rockaway in Queens and Manhattan's Battery Park City, to voluntarily evacuate on Friday to avoid traffic jams, congestion and the transit shutdown on Saturday. He would make a decision on whether to issue a mandatory evacuation order for those areas by 8 a.m. Saturday, he said.
Shelters would be open beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday, he said.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said his department was most concerned about people who are not able to evacuate.
"I think most people will obviously use common sense and leave," he said. "There are some people who obviously are not able to leave their homes under their own power. We'll help in that regard as well."
He said EMS officers are equipped with inflatable boats; highway units will also direct traffic where flooding could occur.
The city already has crews working to clean out some of the 143,000 catch basins in the metropolis to help with street drainage. Bloomberg said that nearly $2 billion in sewer upgrades over the last decade would also help reduce flooding.
The city has moved boats to police station houses in low-lying areas, hired emergency forest contractors and topped off hospital emergency generators with fuel in anticipation of the storm. Department of Sanitation workers have been asked to be on the lookout for any street debris that could clog drainage.
Fliers telling tenants to prepare for Irene were posted in the lobbies of buildings in Battery Park City, a landfill section of Manhattan that was one of the neighborhoods Bloomberg said should prepare for Irene.
The Statue of Liberty will be closed on Sunday, said Jane Ahern, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service. Lady Liberty was set to open on Friday and officials were watching the weather to determine what to do on Saturday, she said.
But many New Yorkers going about their business Thursday said they were not concerned about the hurricane.
"I live on the 10th floor of a 30-story building," said Sam Laury, who lives in Battery Park City's Gateway Plaza complex. "I'm sure I'll be fine."
Meanwhile, on Long Island, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and other elected officials asked for voluntary evacuations of beach communities on western Fire Island, a popular summer destination. They said they were monitoring the weather to determine whether to call for a mandatory evacuation early Friday.
On Shelter Island, a tiny land mass at the very tip of Suffolk County, residents were preparing to hunker down and let the storm wash over the island, which is accessible only by ferry boats. There are only about 2,400 permanent residents year-round, but in the summer months the island's population swells to more than 10,000 people, said Jim Dougherty, the town supervisor.
"We're ready to lose power for three days or so," Dougherty said. "We don't want to, but we are realistic about it. We don't see evacuating the island as a realistic possibility."
Officials in neighboring Nassau County were expecting to be in the direct path of the hurricane, and called for beach communities to begin preparing for possible evacuations. One community, the town of Hempstead, was pulling its boats out of the Atlantic Ocean and advising boaters to do the same.
"We're treating Irene as a war and we're ready for battle," said Town Supervisor Kate Murray. "We're concerned about beach erosion, we're concerned about our marinas."
To the south, organizers of a surfing tournament in Long Beach Sept. 1-15 had started putting up tents on the beach but took them down Thursday as a precaution. But a spokeswoman said the Quiksilver Pro New York tournament would go on as planned.
Elsewhere on Long Island, New York's militia aviation units, vulnerable to high winds, were monitoring conditions Thursday, preparing to move rescue helicopters and planes upstate and out of the storm's path if needed, said Lt. Col. Richard Goldenberg, spokesman for the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs.
Bill Lieblein, 72, the owner of Port of Egypt Marina in Southold, N.Y., was exhausted after spending a day hauling boats onto dry ground along with his deckhands. About sixty boat owners have already asked the marina to take their vessels out of the water, he said, and there will probably be more to come.
"People are being prudent, which is good," he said. "If it blows 150 miles an hour, then it doesn't matter what we do. It's going to blow us all over the place."
North of the city in the Hudson River valley, Ulster County Executive Mike Hein asked city and state officials to authorize releases from two massive reservoirs that provide drinking water to the city — a move meant to free up storage space and reduce flooding downstream if the storm dumps heavy rain.
The Ashokan Reservoir is at 94 percent capacity and the Rondout Reservoir at 97 percent, Hein said.