Atlantic and Cape May counties ordered residents to evacuate barrier islands and low-lying-areas Thursday as the National Weather Service forecast Hurricane Irene to slam into the region as a Category Two storm, bringing with it a 14-foot storm surge.

Evacuation orders also went out for Long Beach Island in Ocean County.

The storm could begin to affect the area by midday Saturday.

All Atlantic County shore communities east of Route 9, including Atlantic City, Brigantine, the Downbeach communities, and sections of some mainland communities are under a mandatory evacuation, effective 6 a.m. today. County spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said a shelter would be established as a place of last resort, but that location has not been determined.

Cape May County ordered a mandatory evacuation beginning 8 a.m. today for all of the county’s estimated 750,000 to 850,000 residents, business owners, visitors, and summer workers. The order covers all 16 municipalities. No emergency shelters in Cape May County were planned Thursday, although county spokeswoman Lenora Boninfante said shelters of last resort may be established Saturday. If residents need assistance in evacuating, they should contact their local police department or office of emergency management, she said.

At a press conference Thursday at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, Cape May officials displayed a flood map showing a red swath of danger stretching more than 30 miles from Tuckahoe to Cape May Point.

“Under the current track — and all tracks being modeled — the likelihood of this hurricane coming close to Cape May County or making landfall is about 90 percent,” Emergency Management Director Frank McCall said. “All of Cape May County in some shape or form will be affected.”

About 80 percent of the county’s population lives along the coast. Virtually all of low-lying Cape May County is expected to see severe flooding, power outages, and potential storm damage.

Anthony Gigi, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, Burlington County, said it is too soon to put a specific forecast on how high a storm surge may be for South Jersey because it will depend on how Irene interacts with North Carolina and whether landfall weakens the storm.

However, he said, local officials have to make evacuation preparations based on track estimates to have enough time to get everybody to safety

“Part of the problem is this is still the summer season, so in terms of evacuation, you need all this time to get people out,” he said. “Whether it goes offshore, inland, or weakens rapidly, you have to take it seriously. Hopefully it’s a once-this-year event.”

McCall and Cape May County Freeholder Ralph Sheets signed the historic evacuation order, only the second in modern times. The last county evacuation was ordered for Hurricane Gloria in 1985. That storm caused extensive flooding and power outages despite veering far offshore.

The Cape May County Bridge Commission will suspend tolls on its five bridges at 8 a.m. today. Tolls also will be suspended on the Garden State Parkway south of the Raritan River and the Atlantic City Expressway beginning at 8 a.m.

Routes 47 and 347 in Cape May County will be closed to eastbound traffic at 6 p.m., with all lanes used to move traffic west.

McCall urged residents to take their pets with them. Plans are being made to evacuate the county’s many nursing homes, including the county-operated Crest Haven. Medically fragile residents were moved to out-of-county centers Thursday. The remaining 160 residents will leave today.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Training Center Cape May is moving some of its sensitive equipment to the Cape May Airport, with personnel being relocated to Cherry Hill or Fort Dix. The American Red Cross is staging equipment at the Woodbine Developmental Center to respond after the storm passes.

The U.S. Army National Guard will make its way to the county beginning 8 a.m. today. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in the process of moving supplies to staging areas throughout the East Coast in anticipation of needs after the storm, agency administrator Craig Fugate said during a media briefing. Among those areas is Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, Fugate said.

In Ocean County, officials are preparing for what will be a mass exodus of people after an evacuation was ordered on Long Beach Island. A voluntary evacuation was ordered on LBI on Thursday, followed by a mandatory evacuation starting 8 a.m. today.

Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora said the state Department of Transportation set up barrels Thursday on Route 72, in preparation for the impending evacuation of Long Beach Island.

“There is only one bridge to LBI, and we need to distribute people off the island and to our shelters quickly,” Spodofora said.

The condition of that bridge has local officials concerned. The bridge is 53 years old and has been deemed structurally deficient by the DOT. The evacuation means an estimated 250,000 people driving over that bridge to get off the island.

“It’s concerning, especially if people don’t heed the warnings and leave on time,” said Lt. James Manley of the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department’s emergency management division. “If they leave early enough, it’s not going to be a concern. Basically, once you get flooding out on the island, it’s going to be very difficult to get out there and help them.”

Local officials met with Red Cross crews and emergency coordinators Thursday to discuss evacuation plans. The shelter at Southern Regional High School in Stafford will open as crowds begin a mandatory evacuation off Long Beach Island. Spodofora said there will be accommodations for pets.

Spodofora said the township began preparing for the worst Wednesday.

“We started cleaning out all storm drain inlets in areas prone to flooding to try to prevent and reduce flooding,” Spodofora said.

By midday Thursday, area gas stations, grocery stores, and other retailers were crowded as tourists and area residents prepared to leave the region or buy materials to protect their homes.

Jay Bolf was waiting to fill four five-gallon gas cans at the Wawa on the Black Horse Pike in Hamilton Township as lines of four to six cars each waited to fill their tanks. Bolf, who lives in the Cologne section of Hamilton, said his house is one of the last to have power restored during extended outages and he had just gone to at least four stores to find a generator. He finally found one at the Lowe’s in Egg Harbor Township, after workers there began unloading them from a delivery truck.

“People were swooping in like vultures,” he said.

But he still had to go to another store to find gas cans, he said.

“My house is basically a tent without power,” he said.

State climatologist David Robinson said that if Irene tracks as the National Hurricane Center is predicting, the effects will be as bad, if not worse, as the Great Hurricane of 1944. Yesterday’s track had the storm moving almost exactly as the 1944 storm, but Thursday morning’s track had it much closer to the coast, following similar to those of Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Hurricane Donna in 1960. However, those storms had weakened considerably by the time they got to New Jersey.

There have been numerous scares regarding hurricanes affecting the state, but Irene’s impact could be the worst since Gloria in 1985, Robinson said. New Jersey has not had a hurricane make landfall since 1903. That storm came in right near Atlantic City, and there has been some debate about whether the storm was strong enough to merit hurricane status, Robinson said. The worst hurricane to hit New Jersey came in 1821, making landfall in Cape May, he said.

“It’s a serious situation developing,” Robinson said. “This is going to test emergency management operations and the citizenry of the state.”

Robinson said statewide effects could be severe, particularly because the water table already is high due to heavy rains two weeks ago.

Sunday’s high tides in Atlantic City will come about 7:15 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. along the ocean. High tide in the back bays will be between one and two hours later, and will be higher due to water coming into shallower areas.

Also affecting those tides is the new moon, which makes high tides higher and low tides lower.

“Everything you can think of that might go wrong in terms of precursors, the rain we’ve had, the softening of the ground, the flooding threat, the new moon which brings high tides, the only saving grace along the coast is if the storm picks up speed and the worst of it comes at low tide,” Robinson said. “We’re water-logged. The ground’s wet, the rivers are running higher than average. (Thursday’s) rain is not going to help, and therefore it’s not going to take all that much rain to start the flooding concerns in the inland streams and rivers.”

Staff Writers Michael Miller, Donna Weaver, and Steven Lemongello contributed to this report.

Contact Sarah Watson:

609-272-7216