NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City on Friday ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 people and prepared to shut down its entire mass transit system ahead of Hurricane Irene's expected arrival over the weekend.
"We've never done a mandatory evacuation before and we wouldn't be doing it now if we didn't think this storm had the potential to be very serious," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference.
The unprecedented evacuations were ordered for people living in low-lying areas near the waterfront, and police had a fleet of rescue boats at the ready.
Homebound elderly and hospital patients in low-lying areas began evacuating earlier on Friday.
At Coney Island Hospital, ambulances were transporting 250 patients to other hospitals ahead of a shutdown set for 8 p.m., said Evelyn Hernandez, a hospital spokeswoman.
In the low-lying Financial District surrounding Wall Street, the New York Fed was readying contingency plans for the storm and expected normal functioning of its open market operations on Monday, a spokesman said.
The New York Stock Exchange was preparing a backup power generator and bringing in extra fuel and food to avoid disruptions when trade resumes on Monday.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said 1,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen would help over the weekend and that the city's mass transit system, which carries 8.5 million people a day, would begin a system-wide shutdown starting at noon on Saturday.
The George Washington and Tappan Zee bridges, among others, were ordered shut if winds top 60 mph, as was the New York State Thruway.
"MY NAME'S NOT NOAH"
Benedict Willis, director of floor operations for investment banking boutique Sunrise Securities, said the NYSE has a responsibility to open on Monday after the hurricane because millions of investors would rely on it for prices.
"But if the waters rise this high," he said gesturing at the buzzing trading floor on Friday, "then it's a bigger problem than I can handle. My name's not Noah."
Airlines moved aircraft from the danger zone and canceled at least 1,000 flights, while the city's four zoos stocked up to keep the animals fed.
Coney Island's aptly named Cyclone roller coaster -- in the direct path of the storm on some projection models -- was still running and scaring people, but would shut down on Sunday, when the heaviest rains were expected.
"I figured I wanted to come and ride it and I'm happy because it might not be here anymore," said Jon Muller, 29, a tourist from Erie, Pennsylvania, celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife.
New Yorkers hungry for information crashed the city's website looking for news on evacuations or service shutdowns.
Forecasters expect that after hitting North Carolina's eastern coast as a powerful, broad hurricane on Saturday, Irene would then rake up the densely populated eastern seaboard to New York, America's most populous city and one rarely found in the path of hurricanes.
Only five hurricanes in records dating to 1851 have tracked within 75 miles of New York City, the most recent one being in 1985, according to weather.com.
Some members of the city's observant Jewish population, normally prohibited by their religion from using electricity on Saturday, began leaving the city on Friday to avoid a religious dilemma should they need emergency services or information.
"Some of the rabbis are giving permission to leave the radio on the Sabbath. The rabbis are getting a lot of calls today," said Dov Hikind, an orthodox Jewish state assemblyman from the borough of Brooklyn.
Roman Catholics received permission from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to skip Sunday Mass.
"The church never asks us to risk our health or safety to get to church on the Lord's day," Dolan said. "Do not take any chance with your safety and health if things get dangerous."
At the Costco wholesale store in Brooklyn, the bottled water aisle was lined with shopping carts on Friday, some piled high with packets of plastic bottles.
"You never know if we're going to need it. Might as well have some extra for the kids," said Carmen Viera, 63, who had three cases of water in her shopping cart to take home to her house in Brooklyn with three children and two grandchildren.
Sporting events and show business were already falling victim to storm warnings. Major League Soccer games in New York, Philadelphia and Washington were rescheduled.
The kick-off time for Saturday's National Football League game between the New York Giants and New York Jets was brought forward to avoid the worst of the foul weather and Major League Baseball games in Philadelphia and Boston were brought forward by a day.
Some bars and restaurants were preparing for a brisk business from New Yorkers who planned to ride out the storm with plenty of food an alcohol.
The manager at the Merchants River House restaurant, which is just behind the Hudson River boardwalk and has views of the Statue of Liberty, said the restaurant planned to stay open all weekend but would tie down deck furniture.
"We're fully stocked up for the weekend," said manager Christian Qualey, "so we can be a safe place for people."