NEW YORK -- Remaining residents are evacuating the financial district and other flood-prone areas of New York Saturday morning after mandatory evacuation orders, and citywide subway and bus transit systems near a noon shutdown as America's biggest city slows to a crawl ahead of a forecast strike from Hurricane Irene.
New York remains directly in the path of Irene on Saturday, and the storm is forecast to strike late Saturday and early Sunday at hurricane strength. But first, the Category 1 storm making landfall in eastern North Carolina.
The strike will be the first on the U.S. mainland for a hurricane since Ike in 2008. Irene was downgraded early Saturday morning, but the storm is still large in scope and duration, remaining an extreme threat as it turns north for a run up the East Coast with the potential of catastrophic impact up the entire I-95 corridor.
First landfall for Hurricane Irene is expected around 9 a.m. ET near Cape Lookout, on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Hard rain is already falling on the Outer Banks and wind speeds are picking up.
In all, more than 30 million U.S. East Coast residents are under Hurricane Warning Saturday and 2.5 million are under evacuation orders, including 550,000 in New York City and Long Island. Rarely do hurricane strength storms hit the region, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city officials have been busy working ahead to prepare and spread word to citizens of Irene's extreme threat.
Some officials and forecasters were concerned Saturday morning that Irene's downgrade from a Category 2 storm to a Category 1 storm might make those in the storm's pass less wary. Irene did weaken overnight, currently packing maximum sustained winds of about 90 miles per hour with higher gusts, but the storm is large, with catastrophic flooding potential, and it has also slowed, enhancing impact even as winds slow.
The latest forecast models early Saturday suggest Irene will remain at hurricane strength potentially until the storm passes well north of New York on Sunday.
Some weakening is expected after Irene reaches the coast of North Carolina, the hurricane center's update said, but Irene is forecast to remain a hurricane as it moves near or over the mid-Atlantic states and New England.
The hazards are still the same, a hurricane specialist at the center, Mike Brennan, said. The emphasis for this storm is on its size and duration, not necessarily how strong the strongest winds are.
Already in North Carolina, as the storm made its way Saturday toward Morehead City and Cape Hatteras, power outages were occurring, downed trees were spotted on roads near the coast and minor damage to some municipal buildings was reported overnight. But the worst is yet to come, and Saturday it was just beginning as Irene prepared to make landfall before running up the East Coast.
The storm is moving more slowly than expected, said Mazie Swindell Smith, the county manager in Hyde County, N.C., in The New York Times. Hyde County is expecting storm surge from the inland bay that it abuts. That's not good as far as rainfall, because it'll just sit here and dump rain.
Hurricane Warnings were in effect Saturday from North Carolina through Massachusetts, as major metropolitan areas including Boston, New York, Hartford, and Philadelphia prepared for the worst. States of emergency have been declared all along the east coast, and mass transit systems are shutting down Saturday in New York, New Jersey, and in Philadelphia.
In New York, the city said MTA lines including subways and buses will shut down at noon and remain closed indefinitely until the storm passes and impact can be assessed. The city's subway lines are vulnerable to flooding in periods of heavy rainfall, and that threat remains one of Irene's biggest. Also, New York is vulnerable in some areas to storm surge, and concern exists that major transportation centers like JFK airport, next to the water in Queens County, might suffer heavy damage.
That's why Bloomberg issued early evacuation orders Friday for prone flood zones like the city's financial district. The mandatory order has already been heeded by most, but those among the last remaining in the area were clearing out Saturday morning. Some who tried to negotiate with landlords to remain have been told they have no choice but leaving. Buildings are being closed with tight security and the area will be abandoned for the most part besides security personnel, officials said.
Just days after experiencing a 5.8 earthquake that originated in Virginia but shook the city nonetheless, New Yorkers handled evacuation orders and the city slowdown with ease Friday and into early Saturday. Most finished up work on Friday, then either went home or fled the city to other destina