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NEW YORK (AP) — The nation's largest subway system and arriving flights at the five main New York City-area airports were to be halted at noon Saturday as Hurricane Irene spun its way up the Eastern Seaboard, forcing more than 300,000 evacuations and dimming lights at Citi Field and on Broadway.
By deciding to shut down the transit system, millions of carless New Yorkers from the Bronx's most distant reaches down through Manhattan and out to the beaches of Brooklyn and Queens will be faced with the question of where to go and how to get there.
Among them are 82-year-old Abe Feinstein, who has lived since the early 1960s on the eighth floor of a building that overlooks the famed boardwalk of Coney Island, which is in the evacuation zone and was alive with residents and visitors Friday.
"How can I get out of Coney Island? What am I going to do? Run with this walker?" he said.
But Feinstein also wasn't too worried.
He recalled watching a hurricane in 1985 from an apartment down the street from where he lives now.
"I have nothing to worry about," Feinstein said. "I've been through bad weather before. It's just not going to be a problem for us."
Bridges and tunnels also could be closed as the storm approaches, possibly clogging traffic in an already congested city. 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.
But by Saturday morning, many New Yorkers appeared to have heeded the warnings about the approaching storm. Bridges and streets were nearly empty, with few people 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.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged those who needed to leave to do so right away Saturday morning. The city doesn't have enough resources to evacuate everyone after the weather worsens, he said about 2 ½ hours before the transit system was to shut down.
"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 in a news conference from Coney Island as rain began to fall. "The time to leave is right now."
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.
The five main New York City-area airports were scheduled to close at noon Saturday for arriving domestic and international flights. Three of them, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty, are among the nation's busiest.
At Kennedy airport Friday night, travelers rushed to make some of the last flights leaving before the hurricane was expected to hit. Some terminal entrances were already closed ahead of Saturday's shutdown. Passengers waiting in line for security checks were led between terminals on ramps closed to vehicles as security agents tried to get the passengers through on time.
Irene was expected to make landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, then roll up the Interstate 95 corridor reaching New York on Sunday. A hurricane warning was issued for the city Friday afternoon, the first time that's happened 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.
Bloomberg said he was confident people would get out of the storm's way.
"We do not have the manpower to go door-to-door and drag people out of their homes," he said. "Nobody's going to get fined. Nobody's going to go to jail. But if you don't follow this, people might die."
Nevertheless, he said that for those who don't heed the warnings, police officers would use loudspeakers on patrol vehicles to spread the word about the evacuation Saturday.
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.
In lower Manhattan, Milton Melendez and partner Shea Collins were headed uptown to a neighborhood north of Little Italy. Melendez, who survived Hurricane David as a child in the Dominican Republic, was worried about their apartment windows being blown out. Collins was a little more blasé.
"This is the same thing as a snowstorm," she said. "They say there's going to be 10 feet and there's four inches."
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.
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.
For those with cars, parking was available at the city's evacuation centers. From there, each family will be assigned to a shelter and taken there by bus.
In the Queens community of the Rockaways, more than 111,000 people live on a barrier peninsula connected to the city by two bridges and to Long Island to the west. Everyone there was ordered to evacuate, which brought the total in the city to 370,000, city officials said.
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.
Associated Press writers Jonathan M. Katz, Larry Neumeister, Emily Fredrix and Jennifer Peltz in New York and Michael Virtanen in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.