LONG BRANCH, N.J. - Thousands of residents and visitors fled resort towns along the New Jersey shore Saturday ahead of powerful Hurricane Irene whose arrival was just hours away.
Mandatory evacuations covered all of the state's barrier island beach resorts, including such popular spots as Atlantic City, Cape May and Long Beach Island, and affected hundreds of thousands of residents and summer visitors, officials said.
"Over one million people have left the Jersey shore in the past 24 hours," Governor Chris Christie told reporters on Saturday afternoon, saying that 90 percent of Atlantic County along the shore tourist zone had been evacuated.
"There are a few remaining residents who have refused to evacuate," Christie said, singling out elderly people in the Atlantic City area, where he was sending extra buses.
"We're going to circle them in front of these particular buildings," Christie said. "To go up and speak to these senior citizens individually and try one more time.
"Certainly (we're) not going to put you under arrest to make you leave, but we do have your safety first and foremost in our minds."
Christie said the National Guard has deployed 1,500 members around the state to help with evacuations and assist at shelters where thousands had already arrived to ride out the storm.
Officials are expecting Irene to hit the state with at least 75-mph winds and 6-12 inches of rain starting Saturday night.
'IT'S THE WAVES'
The looming storm was bringing the biggest waves of the season, prompting scores of surfers to flock to the beaches despite the rain.
"It's the waves," said Guy Gallo of Little Silver, New Jersey, as he prepared to paddle out into the Atlantic Ocean. "But you don't want to get caught out when the hurricane hits."
Damage to resort boardwalks is likely, forecasters said.
At a doughnut shop in Sea Bright, a sign advertising its closing hours read: "Friday 10 p.m., Saturday noon, Sunday, Good Luck."
Casinos and hotels in Atlantic City were emptying out after orders by Christie that all casinos close by noon Saturday. A state of emergency has been in effect in New Jersey since Thursday.
A southbound stretch of nearly 100 miles of the Garden State Parkway south of the Raritan River was closed, as was the Atlantic City Expressway, which heads to Philadelphia.
A spokeswoman for Cape May County, which was under evacuation orders, said only about 10,000 people, out of about 800,000 people who live or were visiting, remained.
All along the shore towns, homeowners were taking precautions. In the wealthy enclave of Deal, workers were boarding up windows on mansions and household employees huddled in bus shelters, waiting to go home. (Additional reporting by Dave Warner in Philadelphia and Molly O'Toole in Washington) (Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Xavier Briand)
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