NEW YORK - The bridges, streets and subways of New York were nearly empty Saturday morning ahead of a nearly unprecedented mass transit shutdown as New Yorkers heeded warnings about approaching Hurricane Irene.
As rain started falling on him at Coney Island, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged residents who needed to leave to get out right away.
The city does not have enough resources to evacuate the majority of the 370,000 affected residents after the weather worsens, he said.
"Staying behind is dangerous, staying behind is foolish, and it's against the law, and we urge everyone in the evacuation zones not to wait until gale-force winds," he said at a news conference from Coney Island. "The time to leave is right now."
If the storm brings serious flooding Sunday, power could be cut off to the city's most vulnerable areas, including the southern tip of Manhattan and parts of the West Village, said Consolidated Edison spokesman Chris Olert. But he didn't expect any power to be cut off Saturday.
"We're not doing anything proactively," he said. "This would be based on flood conditions."
Flooding could cause severe damage to underground cables, transformers and other equipment if power was left on. A shutdown "allows us to do repairs more quickly and safely," he said.
By Saturday morning, few people were even walking or driving. With the shutdown deadline looming, most cars on a train on the No. 1 subway line that runs the length of Manhattan's West Side were empty already in the early morning. Other subways trains were full but not overloaded.
Transit fares and tolls were waived in evacuated areas. Officials hoped most residents would stay with family and friends, and for the rest the city opened nearly 100 shelters with a capacity of 71,000 people.
On Wall Street, sandbags were placed around subway grates nearest the East River, which is expected to surge as the hurricane nears New York.
For those who choose to stay in the city, it won't be a picnic, Bloomberg said. Elevators in public housing apartments would be shut down, and other high-rises may choose to do the same.
Residents were urged to stay indoors once the weather started to get worse.
At 17 Battery Place, a 36-floor luxury rental building, Daryl Edelman and his wife, Regina, were leaving suitcase packed and their small white dog, Bitsy Bananas, tucked into a case.
"What the mayor did shutting down the transportation system is more dangerous than the storm," said Daryl Edelman, a comic book writer. "People could be left stranded especially the elderly."
Bloomberg said he hoped the evacuation wasn't necessary but regardless the storm was expected to be serious enough to cause major damage.
"You can't prepare for the best case. You have to prepare for the worst case," he said.
Bloomberg weathered criticism after a Dec. 26 storm dumped nearly two feet of snow that seemed to catch officials by surprise. Subway trains, buses and ambulances got stuck in the snow, some for hours, and streets were impassable for days. Bloomberg ultimately called it an "inadequate and unacceptable" response.
This time, officials weren't taking any chances. Transit officials said they can't run once sustained winds reach 39 mph, and they need eight hours to move trains and equipment to safety.
Ten teams of firefighters using school buses would be helping with evacuation, and there was an increase police presence.
Bridges and tunnels also could be closed as the storm approaches. Taxis in New York City were to switch from metered fares to zone fares, meaning riders would be charged by which part of the city they were being driven to, rather than how far they were being taken.
The five main New York City-area airports were scheduled to close at noon Saturday to arriving domestic and international flights. Three of them, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty, are among the nation's busiest.
Irene made landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, and was expected to roll up the Interstate 95 corridor reaching New York on Sunday. A hurricane warning was issued for the city Friday afternoon, the first since Gloria in 1985.
If the storm stays on its current path, skyscraper windows could shatter, tree limbs would fall and debris would be tossed around. Streets in the southern tip of the city could be under a few feet of water, and police readied rescue boats but said they wouldn't go out if conditions were poor.
"Heed the warnings," Bloomberg urged, his shirt soaking as the rain fell. "It isn't cute to say `I'm tougher than any storm.' I hope this is not necessary, but it's certainly prudent."
Several New York landmarks were under the evacuation order, including the Battery Park City area, where tourists catch ferries to the Statue of Liberty. Construction was stopping throughout the city, and workers at the World Trade Center site were dismantling a crane and securing equipment. Bloomberg said there would be no effect on the Sept. 11 memorial opening the day after the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
But sporting events, concerts and even Broadway were going dark.
New flood gates were put in place outside Citi Field as a precaution, but Major League Baseball took no chances. The Braves-Mets games Saturday and Sunday were postponed, to be made up as a doubleheader on Sept. 8.
All Broadway musicals and plays were canceled for Saturday and Sunday, as well as "Zarkana" by Cirque du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall and Lincoln Center Theater's "War Horse." It's the first time Broadway has shut down for an emergency since the blackout in 2003.
The subway system won't reopen until at least Monday, after pumps remove water from flooded stations. Even on a dry day, about 200 pump rooms remove 13 million to 15 million gallons of water that seep into the tunnels deep underground.
About 1.6 million people live in Manhattan, and about 6.8 million live in the city's other four boroughs.
The city's public transit system carries about 5 million passengers on an average weekday, and the entire system has never before been halted because of a natural disaster. It was seriously hobbled by an August 2007 rainstorm that disabled or delayed every one of the city's subway lines. And it was shut down after the 9/11 attacks and during a 2005 strike.
In the past 200 years, New York has seen only a few significant hurricanes. In September 1821, a hurricane raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded the southernmost tip of Manhattan in an area that now includes Wall Street and the World Trade Center memorial. In 1938, a storm dubbed the Long Island Express came ashore about 75 miles east of the city on neighboring Long Island and then hit New England, killing 700 people and leaving 63,000 homeless.
And in 1944, Midtown was flooded, where Times Square, Broadway theaters and the Empire State Building are located.