NEW YORK -- New York City announced the closings of its mass transit and school systems, both the nation's largest, and ordered residents to leave some low-lying areas Sunday ahead of the massive storm approaching the eastern third of the U.S.
"You don't want to be overly panicked and overly prepared, but you want to be prudent, you want to do what's necessary," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday in announcing the suspension of the city's subways, buses and commuter trains.
Rainfall is expected to start late Sunday or early Monday in New York. Hurricane Sandy was headed north from the Caribbean to meet both a snowstorm and a cold front, and experts said the rare hybrid storm that results will cause havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. And one expert expressed concern about when the worst of the storm surge would hit: at high tide or at low.
"This will be the crux," said Klaus Jacob, a Columbia University researcher who has advised the city on coastal risks. "If we have bad luck, then it arrives coinciding with high astronomical tides. ... If it arrives at the lower astronomical tides, then we will have lucked out."
A storm surge of 6 to 11 feet was expected, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, and he ordered an evacuation of the low-lying areas along the edges of the city, including parts of lower Manhattan like Battery Park City and some of the financial district, sections of Brooklyn and Staten Island and the Rockaways in Queens.
"If you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you," he said at a news conference Sunday. "... This is a serious and dangerous storm."
But, he said, those who didn't leave wouldn't be arrested. Ralph Gorham, co-owner of the Red Hook Lobster Pound in Brooklyn's low-lying Red Hook neighborhood, was one of those who planned to stay.
"When the bell tolls, you live with it," he said Sunday. He said he had planned ahead and kept from ordering his usual batch of live lobsters from Maine, to diminish possible financial losses.
Gorham also said he was going to the storefront lobster business, usually crowded on weekends with clients, to set up generators and cables to keep the refrigerators and freezers going if power goes out.
If forecasts hold, and especially if the storm surge coincides with high tide, the effects should be much more severe for the city than those in Irene. While the storm may not be the worst-case scenario, Jacob said he expected the subway system, as well as underground electrical systems and neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, to be at least partially flooded. Many other low-lying areas of the city also face possible inundation, including some industrial waterfront areas where chemicals are stored, he said.
"We have to prepare to the extent we can, but I'm afraid that from a subway point of view, I think it's beyond sheer preparations. I do not think that there's enough emergency measures that will help prevent the subway from flooding," he said Sunday by phone.
The suspension of the city's transit system was the second in two years. Service was also suspended during Tropical Storm Irene last year. With a daily ridership of more than 5 million, New York City's subway system is by far the largest in the U.S., and many New Yorkers do not have cars and depend on subways and buses to get to work, school and around town.
Cuomo said the transit system will be suspended starting at 7 p.m. Sunday, when the last subways and final Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road commuter trains would run. The last buses will run at 9 p.m. He said the decision to shut down the area's bridges and tunnels would be made on a case-by-case basis.
The PATH commuter rail planned to suspend service between New York City and New Jersey at 12:01 a.m. Monday. NJ Transit was also suspending bus, train and light rail service starting Sunday afternoon.
The city's school system, which serves 1.1 million students, will be closed Monday, Bloomberg said. Cuomo also said the National Guard would be deployed, 200 troops in New York City, and 400 on Long Island. Broadway canceled all Sunday night and Monday shows.
Not everything was closing. The New York Stock Exchange plans to open for trading as usual on Monday, as does the Nasdaq OMX Group. The exchange rarely shuts down for weather.
At Penn Station, Lori Wolfman, in town for a friend's wedding, waited in a long line to change her tickets. She and her husband were scheduled to leave at 3 p.m. to go home to Washington, where they recently moved from California. But when the noon wedding brunch was canceled and the hotel announced plans to evacuate, they were eager to catch an earlier train.
"We'll get on anything," she said.
"It says they're all sold out," said Barry Wolfman, just back from the Amtrak kiosk. "I don't know if you can just get on an earlier train?"
"No," Lori replied. "I think we're going to be here until 3."
They decided to wait in line just in case, with nothing else to do for about three hours.
"Welcome to the East," she said.
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik and Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.