By Basil Katz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mayor Michael Bloomberg sternly warned New Yorkers to follow the city's unprecedented mandatory evacuation orders on Saturday, saying approaching Hurricane Irene is "life-threatening" and "not a joke."
Some 370,000 of the city's more than 8 million residents are under orders to leave their homes in low-lying and waterfront areas, largely in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens and in the financial district in downtown Manhattan.
The Category 1 hurricane, expected to hit New York City late on Saturday or early on Sunday, is likely to pack winds of 55 to 70 miles an hour, the mayor said at a briefing on Coney Island, an historic boardwalk and beach neighborhood in Brooklyn.
The greatest danger to New Yorkers is a potential tidal surge, Bloomberg said. Residents should prepare for power outages and flooding, he said.
"This is not a joke. Your life could be in danger," he said. "It isn't cute to sit there and say, 'I'm tougher than any storm.' They don't know what they're talking about."
The city's entire mass transit system was set to close down at noon, and bridges could be closed if winds in the region exceed 60 mph.
Despite the persistent warnings and ominous skies, the neighborhood around Coney Island was calm. Parked cars lined the streets, and there was no sign of a mass exodus.
Lots of people seemed unwilling to leave, said City Councilman Michael Nelson, whose Brooklyn district includes Brighton Beach that also was ordered to evacuate.
"My sense is that the majority of the people are staying put," he said. About 50,000 people in his district were affected by the evacuation order, he said.
New York City features a complex geography of islands and peninsulas surrounded by rivers, harbors and open sea -- and so is vulnerable to a battering from the powerful storm.
The city has never before issued mandatory evacuation orders, officials said.
"This is going to be a very serious storm, no matter what the track is, no matter how much it weakens. This is a life- threatening storm to people here," Bloomberg said.
"Staying behind is dangerous, staying behind is foolish and it's against the law."
The evacuation of some 7,000 hospital patients and nursing home residents from facilities in vulnerable neighborhoods went smoothly, he said.
(Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Vicki Allen)