As Hurricane Irene powered north toward Long Island Wednesday , emergency officials were getting ready, and urging residents to do likewise.
In Babylon, the town prepared to install berms at Ocean Parkway underpasses to control flooding if it occurs. In Oyster Bay, parks department workers secured lifeguard chairs and pool furniture. In Islip, a shelter was set up for emergency workers who may need to leave Fire Island.
LIPA organized work crews and moved repair equipment, hoping to avoid a repeat of the response to Hurricane Earl last year. Earl missed the Island, but the agency's storm response cost ratepayers $34 million in preparation costs.
Local governments also have been readying workers, getting trucks in place to handle debris removal, checking municipal generators and other vital equipment, and preparing to contact the elderly and those with special needs. Officials cautioned, however, that with shelter space limited and a mass evacuation nearly impossible, residents must not rely solely on government.
"People need to take action on their own," said Lt. Bob Iberger of the Southampton Police Department, who manages storm readiness. "We can't sit and hold their hands."
Projections Wednesday had Irene threatening the Carolinas by Saturday afternoon, with the outer reaches of the storm being felt on Long Island as early as that night. Landfall on the Island on Sunday is possible.
But forecasters said it's too soon to say whether the Island will get some wind and rain, or the full wallop of a hurricane. Emergency specialists said the picture will get clearer Thursday night and into Friday , and they asked residents to stay alert for updates from local officials.
"We have a large responsibility," said Ron Masters, Hempstead Town's commissioner of Conservation & Waterways, "and you just don't know what the storm is going to do."
Meetings between local officials and those at the state and federal level are taking place regularly to orchestrate the complex task of evacuation should that become necessary.
This communication and coordination is vital as different areas of the Island take longer to evacuate than others. Southampton can get residents out of vulnerable coastal areas in eight hours. Suffolk wants 48 hours to evacuate Fire Island, and Nassau said it needs 24 hours to get residents out of flood-prone South Shore areas.
Should evacuations be called for, the American Red Cross will decide where to open its 50 Long Island shelters. Most of them don't have generators and don't allow pets unless they are service animals. The total shelter capacity is 60,000, not enough to handle the need should a truly powerful hurricane strike.
Those are just some of the reasons why emergency managers want residents in flood zones to have a plan in place to stay with a friend or relative on higher ground if needed. Now is the time to have arrangements finalized, officials said.
"A lot of people tend to become complacent and they wait until the last minute, and that's when evacuation becomes impossible," said Brookhaven emergency coordinator George Kalamaras.
Officials said those outside of flood areas should consider the difficulties of getting off Long Island during a mass exodus and prepare to take shelter at home with adequate supplies.
"Prepare now because most people . . . are not going to be able to evacuate," said regional Red Cross spokesman Sam Kille. "You can't get off Long Island on a holiday weekend."
With Yamiche Alcindor,
Aisha Al-Muslim, Stacey Altherr, Jennifer Barrios, Bill Bleyer, Denise Bonilla, Sophia Chang, Mitchell Freedman, Carl MacGowan and William Murphy