NJ shore visitors flee Irene amid major evacuation

TRENTON, N.J. - August 25, 2011

RELATED: Get the latest track of Irene with the 6abc.com Hurricane Tracker.

Tens of thousands of visitors to the New Jersey shore and many residents began an orderly exodus Thursday after a series of requests to evacuate, including mandatory orders to exit Atlantic City and all of Cape May County which were expected to make the flight from Hurricane Irene the biggest evacuation in state history.

A voluntary evacuation has been issued by the Atlantic County Office of Emergency preparedness for the Barrier Islands beginning at 8:00pm Thursday.

And effective 6:00am Friday, August 26, a mandatory evacuation order will be issued for residents living on the barrier islands and the mainland communities east of Rt. 9 as well as Corbin City.

Residents should prepare for themselves, their families and their pets.

Anyone in need of assistance is asked to contact their local emergency management office. Numbers are available at www.ReadyAtlantic.org and in the blue pages of the phone book.

The evacuation of Cape May County is currently set to begin at 8:00 a.m. on Friday.

There are some 800,000 people in Cape May County. A voluntary evacuation is in effect right now for Cape May County and other coast areas.

Prompt action will greatly aid emergency responders and help ensure your relocation to a safer place.

"People should not let their guards down by any means. We have never experienced land fall in hurricanes, but this is not going to go out to sea. This one is going to impact our area significantly. We are going to have some significant damage done to our area," explained Vince Jones, of Atlantic County Emergency Management.

Casino operators were also preparing for the arrival of Irene.

"We have sandbags at the ready. We have plywood in case we need that. We watch the storm reports and make decisions on what we have to do," said Steve Callendar from Tropicana.

"Any residents living along the New Jersey coastline needs to heed the warnings of Emergency Management officials, and they need to monitor this storm closely. This is a large storm. This is a very powerful hurricane," said Jones.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has ordered tolls suspended on two major evacuation routes as the state prepares for Hurricane Irene.

The governor has urged all residents and visitors to leave barrier islands and shore areas for safer locations.

To make the evacuation easier, the governor said Thursday night that tolls will be temporarily suspended on the Garden State Parkway south of the Raritan River and the Atlantic City Expressway beginning at 8 a.m. Friday.

Christie said Routes 47 and 347 in Cape May County will be closed to eastbound traffic and all lanes will be used to move traffic westward beginning at 6 p.m. Friday. He said police will tightly control access to those highways to ensure motorists' safety.

Click here to see a complete set of evacuation route maps for the New Jersey coast. .

Atlantic City's 11 casinos were bracing for a likely shutdown that would be only their third since opening in 1978.

"Do not try to ride it out. It is not the smart thing to do," Christie told a news conference at the State Police Regional Operations Intelligence Center. He asked all coastal visitors to voluntarily head home by noon Friday.

He also told people who had been planning to visit the shore this weekend to stay home: "Do not go," he said.

Christie's family left the governor's summer residence on Island Beach State Park.

By early evening Thursday, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and state police said there were no reports of serious problems on any routes away from the shore.

Officials in Cape May County, an isthmus with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Delaware Bay on the other, ordered everyone to leave by Friday. Evacuations were also mandatory Friday for coastal parts of Atlantic County and the state's longest barrier island, the 18-mile Long Beach Island.

More than a half million people were covered by either the voluntary or mandatory requests.

The last major evacuation occurred in September 1985, when the casinos were closed and people on several barrier islands were ordered to higher ground as Hurricane Gloria loomed. About 90,000 people left their homes ahead of that storm, which made an abrupt turn away from the coast and caused just a fraction of the damage that was expected.

Time will tell if the state is so lucky this time. The National Weather Service on Thursday issued a hurricane warning for nearly all the state's 130-mile coast on the Atlantic Ocean, and for areas along the Delaware Bay and River from Cape May nearly to Trenton.

Preparations for Irene picked up pace as forecasts showed the storm was increasingly likely to have major effects across the state, not just on the shore. Some projected paths showed it making landfall around Cape May County, which has about 100,000 year-round residents but several times that many when seasonal residents and sun-seeking tourists fill up resort towns like Ocean City, Wildwood and Cape May.

Officials in at least Ocean County were planning to open shelters on the mainland Friday morning. They're geared mostly toward people getting off barrier islands.

The flow of traffic away from Long Beach Island began even before the mandatory order was issued.

Irene, moving through the Bahamas on Thursday and heading toward the North Carolina coast, could deliver rain and winds to the populous Northeast over the weekend, and bear down on New Jersey on Sunday. Rain brought Thursday by a weather system unrelated to Irene made the flood prospects even worse.


RELATED: How to prepare for Hurricane Irene

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