Hospitals and nursing homes in New York City's vulnerable hurricane zones began evacuations Friday morning, lining up ambulances to take away patients one by one before Hurricane Irene hits the city late Saturday into Sunday.
New Jersey residents are also fleeing southern communities amid mandatory evacuation orders there affecting nearly 1 million residents and visitors.
Mayor Bloomberg ordered Friday that all New Yorkers living in the city's primary zone must be out by 5 p.m. Saturday.
Some 250,000 people live in the zone, which includes Battery Park City, Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, Far Rockaway and Midland Beach and South Beach in Staten Island. See the areas in orange on this map.
President Barack Obama urged those in the path of the storm to heed instructions from state and local officials, especially if directed to evacuate. "Don't wait, don't delay," he said Friday.
Staten Island Hospital began evacuating patients Thursday night, with newborns being transported to Cohen Children's Hospital in Lake Success. The other hospitals are New York University, Coney Island Hospital and VA Medical center on 23rd Street in Manhattan.
"They have to move out," Bloomberg said Thursday when he issued the mandatory order.
Hospitals and nursing homes in the primary zone may not have to evacuate if they have backup power or other reasons that may excuse them; those cases must be approved by state and city health officials.
At Coney Island Hospital, officials said operations will wind down by Friday evening. Several dozen ambulances were working throughout the day to transport 241 patients to several other area hospitals.
EMT Jose Guerrero said each ambulance could only take one person, so the job was expected to take hours.
"We're only allowed to transport one patient at a time," he said.
Maintenance workers were planning to stay in the hospital over the weekend to shore up major equipment and tend to possible damage.
Irene has weakened slightly to a Category 2 storm as it approaches the East Coast, where a hurricane warning has been extended to New Jersey.
Nearly all of the New Jersey shore and the entire southern half of the state are under a hurricane warning, and mandatory evacuations are under way in Cape May County, coastal Atlantic County and Long Beach Island.
Officials have called for voluntary evacuations in other areas along the coast. State Police say evacuations are going smoothly so far.
It wasn't guaranteed that the calm would last. "A lot of people — I don't want to say are procrastinating — they're waiting," said state police Capt. Frank Davis.
Davis was expecting more serious tie-ups Saturday as more people hit the road in what promised to be the state's biggest ever weather-related exodus.
Evacuees gathered at the Atlantic City bus terminal Friday morning.
"This is my first hurricane, and I'm very concerned," said Danielle Hebroni, 22, of Shoham, Israel. "We're glad to be getting out of here."
Arthur Peteriet, a waiter at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, was waiting for a bus to New York City where he planned to stay with his sister.
"You can't fight nature," he said. "If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen."
On Long Island, officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for Fire Island and asked for voluntary evacuations in barrier island communities.
Ellen Weinstein was preparing to evacuate her Fire Island home by ferry later in the morning.
"The scariest ride is the one back Monday morning and seeing what happened," she said.
Bay Shore's Southside Hospital is also being evacuated, with 250 patients to move inland.
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