NEW YORK: Tens of thousands of people along the US East Coast were on the move Saturday, fleeing their homes and vacation spots ahead of massive Hurricane Irene, which has shut down airports, transit systems and scores of businesses.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ordered an unprecedented mass evacuation and the closure of the subway while US President Barack Obama cut short his summer vacation and returned to Washington.
The Category Two hurricane, packing winds of 160 kilometers per hour, was set to slam into the coast of North Carolina on Saturday before churning up the eastern seaboard towards Washington, New York and Boston.
The densely populated corridor, home to more than 65 million people, was under the threat of flooding, storm surges, power outages and destruction that experts said could cost up to $12 billion.
Bloomberg told a news conference Friday he had ordered the first-ever mass evacuations from low-lying areas across the densely populated city that are home to some 250,000 people, calling it a "matter of life or death."
"We have never done a mandatory evacuation before, and we wouldn't be doing this now if we didn't think the storm had the potential to be very serious," Bloomberg said.
Authorities had earlier announced that New York's massive transit system would begin to shut down midday Saturday in another rare move that could hinder transport into Monday's rush hour.
All major New York area airports will close Saturday at noon (1600 GMT), officials said.
New York state meanwhile said major links into the city would be cut if winds exceeded 60 miles per hour, as predicted, and authorities called up 900 National Guard troops and 2,500 power workers to prepare for emergency repair work, the largest ever deployment.
Neighboring New Jersey on Thursday ordered 750,000 people out of the Cape May area.
Early Saturday, Hurricane Irene was just south of Cape Lookout, North Carolina, where rain and tropical storm-force winds were already pummeling the coast, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
It said Irene had weakened slightly and would lose strength once it hit land on Saturday, but would remain a hurricane as it passed over or near the mid-Atlantic Saturday night before churning north towards Canada.
Irene's approach stirred painful memories of Hurricane Katrina, which smashed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, stranding thousands of people in New Orleans and overwhelming poorly-prepared local and federal authorities.
The popular North Carolina beach resort of Kill Devil Hills was a ghost town Friday, as forecasters predicted up to 15 inches of rain in some places and the first power outages were reported.
"We haven't seen a hurricane threat like this in quite a few decades," Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman from the National Weather Service, told AFP.
"This is going to be a very long weekend for the residents of the Mid-Atlantic and the northeast."
Irene will be accompanied by an "extremely dangerous" storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 11 feet, the NHC said.
"We're ordering all of our citizens off the coast," North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue said, noting that the state could not forcibly eject holdouts but would leave them "at the mercy of themselves and the storm."
Further north in Washington, residents packed into supermarkets to stock up on emergency supplies, cleaning out shelves of bottled water and batteries.
And in New York's City Island in the Bronx, local boat owners scrambled to pull vessels out of the water.
Nelson Powell, 70, said he had been planning for a year to sail south to Florida, but last-minute money problems forced him to postpone the trip, luckily, as he would have been in the storm's path.
"It worked out for the good. Fate moves in mysterious ways," Powell told AFP as he battened down his vessel.
Hurricanes are rare in the northeastern United States, the last major hurricane to hit New York was Gloria in 1985.
Obama has spoken with senior emergency officials and local authorities to coordinate federal help, but he warned people to take immediate precautions.
"If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions now. Don't wait. Don't delay," he said.
The US military said up to 101,000 National Guard soldiers were available if needed and designated military bases in three states as staging areas.
Ships with the navy's Second Fleet sailed out of their home port in Virginia to ride out the storm at a safe distance, and aircraft cleared off the tarmac at air force bases in three states.
Chuck Watson, research director at Kinetic Analysis, which does computer modeling of predicted storm damage, estimated $11 or $12 billion from Irene in a "worst-case scenario."
On New York's Rockaway Beach, Katie Richardson, 27, said she and her friends, all in town from Texas, would make the most of their trip to the Big Apple, even if the city shuts down.
"We're going to ride this out with granola bars and Jameson," she vowed.