Hundreds of thousands ordered to leave Jersey Shore

VENTNOR, N.J. Fri Aug 26, 2011 3:05pm EDT

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VENTNOR, N.J. Aug 26 (Reuters) - Summer resort towns along the 100-mile New Jersey shore were emptying on Friday and Atlantic City casinos were closing as officials ordered evacuation ahead of Hurricane Irene's arrival.

Hundreds of thousands of people were likely affected by the mandatory evacuations that covered all of the state's barrier island beach resorts and included such popular towns as Wildwood, Ocean City and Avalon, all in Cape May County where the summer tourist population is typically 750,000.

Governor Chris Christie on Thursday declared a state of emergency for New Jersey.

In the shore town of Ventnor, veteran visitors and long-time residents said they had never before evacuated for a hurricane, even though the town regularly floods even in small rainstorms. A powerful hurricane in 1944 destroyed Ventnor's boardwalk.

Irene was bearing down on North Carolina on Friday, and New Jersey was braced for a possible weekend battering from the Category 2 storm, with winds between 96 and 110 miles per hour (154-177 kph) and storm surges of 6 to 8 feet (1.8-2.4 meters).

Tourism on the Shore, more than 125 miles (205 km) of Atlantic coast beach towns from Sandy Hook just below New York harbor to Victorian Cape May on the south, is one of the state's top economic engines.

Marvin Levey, 75, was unloading sandbags from his car to weigh down the lawn furniture in his Ventnor yard before heading home to Philadelphia.

"I've been coming down here for over 30 years and never evacuated before," he said. "I came down to put away anything I could put away."

Casinos and hotels in Atlantic City were closing down and emptying out as well, as Atlantic County was included in the mandatory evacuation order.

Christie suspended gaming at the casinos as of noon Saturday and said everyone who could obtain transportation had to evacuate the dowager resort city.

The governor said the evacuation might prompt looting but that "security, surveillance and maintenance operations and personnel have been ramped up and coordinated" at the casinos that line the resort's famous boardwalk.

With heavy traffic leaving the Atlantic shore areas, tolls were suspended on the Atlantic City Expressway, which heads directly west to Philadelphia, authorities said.

Some state roads were closed to shorebound traffic, so that all lanes can be used for outbound traffic, officials said.

Not everyone felt the pressure to leave, said Michael Holland, 24, a lifeguard at a Ventnor beach. "We're supposed to tell people to leave, but they're kind of indifferent to it," he said.

Holland said he plans to ride out the storm at his house in Margate, which is also under evacuation orders.

Nearby, heading to a cousin's house in Pennsylvania from Ventnor, 18-year-old Caitlin Heckman said: "My grandmother didn't want to go, but my mom is freaking out."

(Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia. Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Peter Bohan and Philip Barbara)

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