VENTNOR, New Jersey (Reuters) - Summer resort towns along the New Jersey shore were emptying on Friday ahead of Hurricane Irene as officials ordered mandatory evacuation of the popular tourist areas along the state’s coastal barrier islands.
The mandatory evacuations covered all of the state’s barrier island beach resorts, according to Mary Goepfert, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management.
Hundreds of thousands of people were likely to be affected by the orders, which included such heavily visited towns as Wildwood, Ocean City and Avalon, all in Cape May County where the summer tourist population is typically 750,000 people.
In the shore town of Ventnor, also under evacuation orders, 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 weekend battering from the Category 2 storm, with winds between 96 and 110 miles per hour and storm surges of 6 to 8 feet.
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.”
Governor Chris Christie on Thursday declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm. With heavy traffic leaving the Atlantic shore areas, tolls were suspended on parts of the Garden State Parkway south of the Raritan River and on the Atlantic City Expressway, which heads into Philadelphia.
The state hopes to “ease the evacuation to the extent possible” as New Jersey residents prepare for Irene, said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts.
Casinos and hotels in Atlantic City were emptying out as well, as Atlantic County was included in the mandatory evacuation order. Well-known gambling spots such as Harrah’s were closing down after orders by the governor that all casinos close by noon on Saturday.
Officials were driving around New Jersey’s Long Beach Island, a barrier island also under orders to evacuate, announcing: “Evacuate, evacuate.”
“There are a few die-hard surfers out in the water, and a lot of stores have boarded up the windows,” said Elyse DiBiagio-Wood as she drove off the island.
Some state roads were closed to shorebound traffic, so that all lanes can be used for outbound traffic, officials said.
Route 72, running for 28 miles to Route 70, will close all lanes to eastbound travel to aid in evacuating Long Beach Island, authorities said.
Traffic was jammed for some 20 miles on the Garden State Parkway, said Mike Durkin, who drove home to Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, from the Jersey shore.
“I think there is a lot of nervous energy,” he said. “There are people who have been there for 30 years who always rode out the storms before. A neighbor told me he just wasn’t going to take a chance on this one though,” he added.
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.
“This is my home. I have a boat and a kayak and surfboards,” he said. “I hope we see you here Monday morning.”
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, and Grant McCool and Edith Honan in New York. Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Editing by Peter Bohan