Heavy winds and rain are expected up the Eastern Seaboard from the Carolinas to Maine, as Hurricane Irene -- a powerful Category 3 hurricane -- continues to blow through the Bahamas.
The first tropical storm and hurricane watches in the United States were issued Thursday morning for North and South Carolina; current storm tracks show Irene coming to New York on Sunday.
New York City officials said Wednesday that they had begun preparations to evacuate residents from low-lying areas of the city if it proved necessary when Irene was still at a Category 1.
"The sense is that we're going to be facing a strong tropical storm" with winds of 40 to 60 mph, said Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno. But Bruno added that the city's agencies were preparing for a "worst case scenario" of a Category 1 hurricane with winds surpassing 72 mph and waters surging dangerously in low-lying areas. With five hospitals and nursing homes in the area, officials were readying to possibly evacuate the most frail and needy.
Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway would not say exactly how long before the storm's arrival — expected around midday Saturday — the mayor would decide whether or not to evacuate residents from the city areas designated as part of "Zone A." The zone — the part of the city most likely to be flooded — includes the southern tip of Manhattan as well as Brooklyn's Coney Island and the Rockaways.
Evacuees would have plenty of time to leave their areas by public transportation before transit authorities cease operations, and they would be given shelter on higher ground at dozens of city evacuation centers, Holloway said.
"In the event that any kind of evacuation was needed we would be using every available communication means and working with people in the local community," he said.
The city's subway stations and tunnels would likely be flooded in places, and officials plan to shut the system down ahead of time to reduce damage to the infrastructure.
Officials said city residents should all have an emergency supply kit at home, including bottled water, non-perishable food and a battery-powered radio.
On Long Island, emergency officials advised residents to stock up on bottled water, batteries, flashlights and other items should they become stranded this weekend by the storm. School buses in Nassau County were moved to higher ground in case they might be used to evacuate residents to storm shelters, said county executive Edward Mangano. Officials also visited areas that were recently flooded by summer storms to check storm drains, Mangano said.
"You have to recognize that you're living here on an island, and island living represents certain risks," Mangano said. "And those risks appear now, at least, to be tracking toward us."
Mangano said officials are monitoring the storm closely and are weighing whether to close beaches or limit access to the water. Emergency management officials are on standby all weekend in case they need to be called into action.