U.S. Northeast Braces for Worst Hurricane Threat Since 1985

New York City began evacuating the sick and elderly from low-lying areas as Hurricane Irene threatened to inflict the worst destruction in the Northeast since Hurricane Gloria in 1985.

New York, New Jersey and Delaware prepared for the possibility of mass evacuations. The storm may affect more than 65 million people from North Carolina to Maine, or 1 in 5 Americans, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered hospital patients and people in nursing homes and senior housing in coastal areas moved to higher ground. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the busiest U.S. transit system, said bus and subway service may be suspended tomorrow as the storm nears.

“This is the day that people ought to be buying food, water and batteries,” Delaware Governor Jack Markell said yesterday on Bloomberg Television’s “InBusiness With Margaret Brennan.”

Markell declared a state of emergency, as did Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue and Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell. The declarations free up state resources to be spent on storm-related expenses.

President Barack Obama signed a federal emergency declaration for North Carolina, authorizing the Homeland Security Department and Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster response and mobilize resources.

Sandbags in Baltimore

In Baltimore, about a dozen people helped fill sandbags on the brick-lined waterfront of Fells Point. Anne Gummerson said her basement flooded six-feet (1.8-meters) deep when Hurricane Isabelle blew through Chesapeake Bay in 2003. This time, she’s rented a pump and a generator, and joined those shoveling sand.

“I am a little more afraid than last time,” she said. “We’ll just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Irene, the strongest Atlantic storm to threaten the U.S. since 2005, battered the Bahamas yesterday with winds of 115 miles (185 kilometers) an hour on a course expected to take it near North Carolina tomorrow, according to the National Hurricane Center.

More than 25 million workers at 1.7 million businesses in 310 counties are in the storm’s path into New England, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Deadly Gloria

Gloria killed 11 people as it made landfall three times: along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, on Long Island and in Connecticut before diminishing over New England, according to the hurricane center. The storm, which reached Category 4, caused $900 million in damage in 1985 dollars, according to Weather Underground Inc.

FEMA is moving hurricane supplies into New Jersey and Massachusetts, having already sent to North Carolina food, bottled water, medical equipment, tarps and generators, Craig Fugate, an agency administrator, said on a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Massachusetts officials expect power outages statewide, including in Boston, according to Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. Most of the rain -- up to a foot (30 centimeters) -- will come down in the western part of the state if the forecast route holds, he said.

The decision to evacuate areas of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island would be based on the strength, path and speed of the storm, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters yesterday. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

New York Hurricane

City officials are planning for a storm with winds of at least 60 miles an hour accompanied by heavy rain, the mayor said. They expect the storm to cross mid-Long Island, on the border of Nassau and Suffolk counties, east of the city, he said.

Only five hurricanes since 1851 have tracked within 75 miles of New York City, the most recent being Gloria, according to the National Weather Service.

Christie urged people at the Jersey Shore to leave voluntarily as he considered a mandatory evacuation.

Jim Rosenbluth, managing director for crisis management at Cushman & Wakefield, which manages more than 1,100 commercial properties on the East Coast, said New York may suffer historic levels of damage and significant flooding from a storm surge if winds approach 100 miles an hour.

‘Absolutely’ at Risk

Basements and lower levels of major high-rise buildings close to waterfronts “would absolutely be at risk,” he said. Electricity could be out for days, he said.

“This is a very significant event, a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said.

The Washington area may get tropical-force winds as the storm moves through the region. Residents rattled by a rare earthquake Aug. 23 were advised to stock up on supplies for the first of what may be an active hurricane season.

A steady flow of evacuees was leaving North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a coastal vacation spot for 200,000 to 250,000 people daily, according to the area’s Chamber of Commerce. Tourism is one of the state’s largest industries, collecting a record $17 billion from visitors last year, according to the Tourism Division.

It’s too soon to gauge the economic effects of the storm, said Angie Brady-Daniels, a spokeswoman for the area chamber.

“There are so many factors in play right now,” she said. “Our main focus is the safety of our guests.”

Farm Income

Eastern North Carolina, which produced about two-thirds of the state’s $9.2 billion in farm income in 2009, is most vulnerable to the hurricane, said Brian Long, a spokesman for the North Carolina Agriculture Department. Broiler chickens are the state’s biggest commodity, representing $2.5 billion in farm income in 2009, he said. Hogs followed at $1.9 billion.

“In 1999 with Hurricane Floyd, there was quite a bit of animal mortality, and we’re advising people to move their animals to higher ground,” Long said by telephone from Raleigh.

Tobacco, cotton, peanuts and soybeans are still in the fields, Long said. Corn has been “devastated” by drought.

“Unfortunately, we might be going from one extreme to the other,” he said.

Gasoline traded at the highest in more than three weeks yesterday on speculation that Irene may disrupt East Coast refinery production and fuel distribution. Futures rose 3.1 percent to $2.9679 a gallon in the previous session, and were little changed at $2.9675 at 8:57 a.m. London time today on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

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