Long Islanders are hunkering down and bracing for impact as the threat of Hurricane Irene has become imminent.
Thousands of residents packed up and fled to higher ground or shelters, while others decided to remain in place and wait out the storm, frustrating officials who issued mandatory evacuation notices for storm surge and low lying areas throughout Long Island.
Nassau and Suffolk county officials held several news conferences throughout the day asking stubborn residents thinking about riding out the hurricane in communities told to evacuate to leave before they put their families and emergency workers at risk.
“Folks have to understand that once winds pick up…there’s no one coming to your homes,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said at a hurricane shelter in Brentwood Saturday afternoon.
Said Levy’s counterpart Ed Mangano, “This is not the time to be funny or be knuckleheads.”
In a joint news conference with local officials Gov. Andrew Cuomo added an additional 1,000 National Guards members to the surrounding area.
As of 7 p.m. Saturday, a hurricane warning was still in effect for the surrounding area, after Irene left thousands without power and reportedly claimed the lives of eight people along the East Coast. A tornado watch was also issued, according to the National Weather Service.
Hurricane Irene continues to barrel down on Long Island as Category 1 storm with sustained winds near 80 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The slightly weakening storm remains a Category 1 hurricane. Meteorologist forecast Irene to remain near hurricane strength as she approaches our shores.
Irene is moving toward the north-northeast near 16 mph, and tropical storm force winds are expected Saturday night, with hurricane force winds developing early Sunday morning. Maximum winds are forecast between 55 and 75 mph with gusts up to 85 mph.
Isolated tornadoes are possible across Long Island, the National Weather Service said.
The brunt of the storm will hit Long Island early Sunday morning into the afternoon, bringing damaging winds, torrential rain that could amount to 6 to 12 inches, likely causing significant coastal flooding and beach erosion. Irene may produce rainfall rates of 1 to 2 inches an hour.
Meteorologists warn that based on recent heavy rains, moderate to major river flooding is likely along with significant and widespread urban and poor drainage flooding.
Major coastal flooding could occur if the greatest surge coincides with the times of high tides Sunday morning and/or Sunday evening. Higher-than-usual tides during the new moon this weekend may make flooding worse.
Irene is a nearly 300-mile wide storm.
Heeding warnings from local officials, residents in storm surge areas evacuated homes and parked their families in one of the dozens of shelters throughout LI.
The shelter at Nassau County Community College was at capacity by Saturday afternoon after county executive Mangano ordered evacuations of North and South shore communities in storm surge areas by 5 p.m. Saturday.
The hurricane shelter at Brentwood High School had 80 residents registered to stay the night as of 3 p.m., with more residents expected to pack inside when power goes out.
Athalee Watson, of Brentwood cradled her 2 1/2-month-old son while sitting on a cot inside the shelter. The 33-year-old mother of six left for the shelter because she was concerned of trees falling in her neighborhood, and didn’t want to leave her house in the middle of Irene‘s rage.
“I don’t want to realize mid-storm, I need to get out,” she said with her cousin also by her side.
Watson said she isn’t concerned about her son who doesn’t know what is bearing down on Long Island.
“He’s used to a lot of noise,” she said, adding “I’d rather go home and see what the problem is then to have to deal with it while I’m there.”
With nothing else to do in the shelter, a handful of people gathered around a wood table and played cards, awaiting the storm. Many were in high spirits and felt safe under the roof of the high school.
Among the local residents was Dawn Slawkawski of Oakdale who was under a mandatory evacuation, but came out to help the Red Cross volunteers, deciding against staying with family.
“It’s been a waiting game and it’s a little tiresome,” she said, “but I can’t wait for it to blow through.”
Across the island, residents were stocking up on water and other supplies to keep them going in the event that power goes out. Drivers had to wait on lines at several gas stations, and store owners boarded up windows in an attempt to prevent damage.
Plywood shielding windows of a mattress store in Brentwood read “Bye bye Irene.” A local Dunkin Donuts added humor to a tense situation with spray paint that read “Open, Stock up Donuts.”
The usually crowded Deer Park Long Island Rail Road branch was eerily empty as a recorded message continuously announced that service was suspended “until the duration of Hurricane Irene.”
At noon LIRR train service, bus routes and subway was halted, as the MTA ordered its first-ever shutdown of the transit system with Irene approaching.
With Irene capable of producing damaging winds, LIPA officials brought in hundreds of workers from other utilities to help fix possible outages, Levy said. National Grid announced that emergency planning was underway as Irene continued its path toward Long Island.
With a drizzle falling outside the Brentwood shelter, Slawkawski echoed what most Long Islanders talked about with family and friends as they tracked the storm all week.
“I try to just hope that it’s going to blow through and we get back to normal life,” she said.