ROCKAWAY BEACH, New York — More than 200,000 New Yorkers are under orders to flee a once-in-a-century hurricane, but many in the famed City That Never Sleeps are brushing aside danger -- and heading to the beach.

Hours after Mayor Mike Bloomberg ordered the evacuation from the low-lying Rockaway Beach, the sun-kissed coastline was packed with sunbathers and surfers as city dwellers took the dire warnings about Hurricane Irene in stride.

Roberto Luzuriaga, who was making a brisk business selling Italian Ice desserts to swimmers straight off the sand, echoed the views of many when he said that authorities' warnings were at times self-serving.

"It definitely is a concern, but sometimes things are blown out of proportion. Sometimes the people who make the calls just want to save their asses," said Luzuriaga, who is still debating whether to leave his nearby home.

Jeffrey Rose, a clinical hypnotist strolling the beach dipping onion rings into guacamole, said he was considering leaving the city on a business trip but was not overly concerned about Irene, which is set to barrel down by Sunday.

"We're a very litigious society. The city knows that if something happens, they could get sued. That's okay; it's just that people have to cover themselves," Rose said.

C.J. Carey, a Rockaway Beach resident who was out swimming, said he may head north Saturday, away from the shore, to the Bronx. But on Friday, he was enjoying the literal calm before the storm.

"There may be a hurricane, but today is great for the waves," Carey said.

No such massive hurricane has directly hit New York City since 1938, and Bloomberg has ordered an unprecedented mass evacuation and closure of the subway, one of the few in the world that usually stays open around the clock.

More than 65 million people across the densely populated US eastern seaboard were in the path of Irene, which could cause flooding, storm surges, power outages and destruction that experts said could cost up to $12 billion.

New York City could face a rare cutoff with the outside world, however temporarily, with authorities planning to close major links including the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey if the winds reach 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) as predicted.

Michael Curcio, who lives directly across from Rockaway Beach, boarded up his windows piece by piece with wood as he prepared for the storm.

"I wasn't going to do this, but the mayor convinced me. I got a good deal on the wood, so instead of suffering $7,000 in damage, maybe we can save the house. Or maybe the house will be gone and the wood will still be here," he said with a smile.

But he was still undecided about whether to leave.

"My wife says she wants to stay here and see the waves. I told her I'll put a rope around her waist and hold on as long as I can," Curcio said jokingly.

Many other New Yorkers, and visitors, offered a sense of humor as they waited for the storm. At a dive bar near Rockaway Beach, regulars toasted "Happy Hurricane!" as they downed late-afternoon beers and burgers.

On Rockaway Beach, Katie Richardson was heading to swim and surf with her friends, who all arrived on Thursday from Austin, Texas. She said she barely made her flight as airlines began to scale back service to New York.

Now in New York, the 27-year-old and her friends planned to make the most of their time in the Big Apple, even if it shuts down.

"We're going to ride this out with granola bars and Jameson," she vowed.

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

Image by Peter Shugert, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons