HURRICANE IRENE

Hurricane Irene: Thousands flee as Hurricane Irene bears down

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Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were told Thursday to pack a bag and be prepared to move elsewhere. The nation's biggest city has not seen a hurricane in decades, and a hurricane warning hasn't been issued there since Hurricane Gloria hit in 1985 as a Category 2 storm, said Ashley Sears, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

Even if the winds aren't strong enough to damage buildings in a metropolis made largely of brick, concrete and steel, a lot of New York's subways and other infrastructure are underground, making them subject to flooding. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said public transportation in New York City would shut down around noon Saturday, and major bridges also could shut down if conditions become too windy.

New York's two airports are close to the water and could be inundated, as could densely packed neighborhoods, if the storm pushes ocean water into the city's waterways, officials said. In 2008, the city had a brush with Tropical Storm Hanna, which dumped 3 inches of rain on Manhattan.

In the last 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 all of Manhattan south of Canal Street, the southernmost tip of the city. The area now includes Wall Street and the World Trade Center memorial.

An infamous 1938 storm dubbed the Long Island Express came ashore about 75 miles east of the city and then hit New England, killing 700 people and leaving 63,000 homeless.

New England is also unaccustomed to direct hits from hurricanes.

The first U.S. injuries from Irene appeared to be in South Florida near West Palm Beach, where eight people were washed off a jetty Thursday by a large wave churned up by the storm.

Across the Northeast, Irene threatened to flood many miles of land that are already saturated from heavy rain.

Parts of Rhode Island are still recovering from devastating 2010 spring floods. And Connecticut Gov. Daniel P. Malloy warned there could be prolonged power outages if Irene dumps up to a foot of additional rain.

The urban population explosion in recent decades also worries New Jersey officials. Gov. Chris Christie encouraged anyone on that state's heavily developed shoreline to prepare to leave. One of the popular casinos in Atlantic City had already closed Friday, and several others planned to shut down later in the day.

The beach community of Ocean City, Md., was taking no chances, ordering thousands of people to leave.

"This is not a time to get out the camera and sit on the beach and take pictures of the waves," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

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