By Daniel Trotta and Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City on Friday ordered the evacuation of more than 250,000 people and prepared to shut down its entire mass transit system, both unprecedented measures ahead of the expected battering from Hurricane Irene.
The powerful and unusually large storm trudged up the U.S. East Coast on Friday, threatening 55 million people including more than 8 million in New York City, which was expecting heavy winds late on Saturday or early on Sunday.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered people living in low-lying areas -- including the Financial District surrounding Wall Street in Manhattan -- out of their homes by 5 p.m. (2100 GMT) on Saturday, saying 91 emergency shelters would be open on Friday.
The transit system that carries 8.5 million people a day would start shutting down around noon (1600 GMT) on Saturday, a process that could take eight hours.
"We've never done a mandatory evacuation before and we wouldn't be doing it now if we didn't think this storm had the potential to be very serious," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference.
New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo activated 900 National Guard troops while airlines moved aircraft from the danger zone and canceled at least 1,000 flights and the city's four zoos stocked up to keep the animals fed.
Bridges leading to the island of Manhattan could be closed if winds exceed 60 mph.
Police had a fleet of rescue boats at the ready in case resident of low-lying areas near the waterfront were trapped by the storm surge, which would be exacerbated by coincidental high tides.
The evacuations zones are mostly along the waterfront of the city -- a complex geography of islands and peninsulas surrounded by rivers, harbors and open sea.
In the Rockaways area of Queens that faces the Atlantic Ocean, Destiny Crespo, 19, vowed to defy the evacuation order, saying, "No matter what, we're going to board up these windows, we're going to stay right here. ... I am going to ride my way out of it like I'm a surfer."
But her mother, Genevieve Crespo, 42, was more worried. "I am disabled. How am I going to get on the train with my grandkids? We have no idea where to go or what to do," she said.
Benedict Willis, director of floor operations for investment banking boutique Sunrise Securities, said the NYSE had a responsibility to open Monday after the hurricane because millions of investors would rely on it for prices.
"But if the waters rise this high," he said gesturing at the buzzing trading floor on Friday, "then it's a bigger problem than I can handle. My name's not Noah."
The evacuations were mandatory, technically punishable by a $500 fine or 90 days in jail, but Bloomberg said, "We're not trying to punish people. We're trying to protect them."
"Nobody's going to get fined. Nobody's going to jail. But if you don't follow this, people might die," Bloomberg said.
FIRST A QUAKE, THEN A HURRICANE
After the city experienced an unusually strong earthquake centered in Virginia on Tuesday, it prepared for a rare hurricane. Only five hurricanes in records dating to 1851 have tracked within 75 miles of New York City, the most recent one being in 1985, according to weather.com.
"We are New Yorkers and we are tough. We like to think of ourselves as tough," Governor Andrew Cuomo said. "But we're also smart, and it's smart to prepare. It's smart to evacuate ... and it's smart to evacuate now."
Homebound elderly and hospital patients in low-lying areas began to be evacuated earlier on Friday.
At Coney Island Hospital, ambulances were transporting 250 patients to other hospitals ahead of a shutdown set for 8 p.m. (0000 GMT on Saturday), said Evelyn Hernandez, a hospital spokeswoman.
The New York Stock Exchange was preparing a backup power generator and bringing in extra fuel and food to avoid disruptions when trade resumes on Monday. Around the corner, the New York Fed rolled out contingency plans in order to preserve the normal functioning of its open market operations on Monday, a spokesman said.
The Cyclone roller coaster -- in the direct path of the storm on some projection models -- was still running and scaring people on Friday, but would shut down on Sunday, when the heaviest rains were expected.
"I figured I wanted to come and ride it and I'm happy because it might not be here anymore," said Jon Muller, 29, a tourist from Erie, Pennsylvania, celebrating his wedding anniversary with his wife.
New Yorkers hungry for information crashed the city's website (http://www.nyc.gov/html/home_alt.html) looking for news on evacuations or service shutdowns.
Some members of the city's observant Jewish population, normally prohibited by their religion from using electricity on Saturday, began leaving the city on Friday to avoid a religious dilemma should they need emergency services or information.
"Some of the rabbis are giving permission to leave the radio on the Sabbath. The rabbis are getting a lot of calls today," said Dov Hikind, an orthodox Jewish state assemblyman from the borough of Brooklyn.
At the Costco wholesale store in Brooklyn, the bottled water aisle was lined with shopping carts on Friday, some piled high with packets of plastic bottles.
"You never know if we're going to need it. Might as well have some extra for the kids," said Carmen Viera, 63, who had three cases of water in her shopping cart to take home to her house in Brooklyn with three children and two grandchildren.
Sporting events and show business were already falling victim to storm warnings.
The kick-off time for Saturday's National Football League game between the New York Giants and New York Jets was brought forward several hours to avoid the worst of the foul weather, and the New York Mets baseball team postponed games on Saturday and Sunday.
But some bars and restaurants were preparing for a brisk business from New Yorkers who planned to ride out the storm with plenty of food an alcohol.
The manager at the Merchants River House restaurant, which is just behind the Hudson River boardwalk and has views of the Statue of Liberty, said the restaurant planned to stay open all weekend but would tie down deck furniture.
"We're fully stocked up for the weekend," said manager Christian Qualey, "so we can be a safe place for people."
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Lynn Adler and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Sandra Maler)