New York was this morning in the eye of the storm as hurricane Irene forced an unprecedented shutdown of the city, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee in terror, ripping trees from the ground and leaving millions without power.
Manhattan was turned into a ghost town as the streets were deserted after the hurricane smashed its way up the East Coast before descending on the Big Apple.
Heavy rains raised fears of severe flooding and 200,000 New Yorkers were left without power, mainly residents on Staten Island, Queens and the outer suburbs as hurricane Irene ripped through the city.
Experts said a storm surge on the fringes of Lower Manhattan could send seawater into the maze of underground vaults that hold the city’s cables and pipes, knocking out power to thousands and crippling Wall Street, Ground Zero and the luxury high-rise apartments of Battery Park City. Tornadoes were also a possibility.
The destructive power of hurricane Irene has so far killed ten people, including two children. An 11-year-old boy in Virginia was killed when a tree fell through the roof of his house and a child died in a car crash at an intersection in North Carolina where traffic lights were out.
More than three million people from South Carolina to Maryland were without power as the giant 580-mile-wide storm brought widespread flooding and high winds that knocked down power lines.
In an unprecedented move, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of five New York hospitals most at risk from the hurricane. The massive operation was carried out over the course of 12 hours on Friday and involved moving intensive care patients and premature babies in their incubators. Only ten patients were kept at New York University Hospital as their conditions were so critical, to move them was considered more dangerous.
Nearly half a million homes were without power in New Jersey with utilities companies saying it could take days to restore service. New York, New Jersey and Long Island were on heightened alert for tornadoes. The Passaic River in New Jersey was at risk of bursting its banks if heavy rainfall continues.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said cats and dogs would be welcome at the emergency shelters set up for people fleeing the storm.
He said: ‘If you have your pet bring them with you. No one should be staying in their homes in an endangered area because they feel like they can’t bring their pets with them.’
A nuclear reactor shut down in Maryland after a transformer was reportedly damaged by flying debris. Constellation Energy Nuclear Group described it as a low-level emergency and said the plant remained stable. Communications director Mark Sullivan said here was no threat to employees or residents.
City officials warned that if Irene stayed on track, it could bring gusts of 85 mph overnight that could shatter skyscraper windows.
Flood waters forced a storm shelter to be evacuated in Hoboken which lies across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
‘Hoboken faces the worst case scenario. Flooding has begun. Moving Wallace Shelter residents to state shelter in east Rutherford,’ Mayor Dawn Zimmer wrote on Twitter.
All subway service was suspended because of the threat of flooding in the tunnels – the first time the nation’s biggest transit system has shut down because of a natural disaster. Sandbags and tarps were placed on or around subway grates.
Authorities shut down the Port of New York and the Port for Long Island Sound. The Palisades Interstate Parkway entrance to the George Washington Bridge was also closed due to the worst weather conditions to threaten the city since the 1980s.
In his final address on Saturday night at 10.30pm, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a tornado warning for New York and said that the time for evacuation was over. He advised people to stay indoors and make preparations.
Mayor Bloomberg warned New York’s eight million residents that a storm surge in the city at 8am could lead to widespread blackouts.
He said: ‘The edge of the hurricane has finally got upon us. No matter how tempting it is to say ”I was outside during the storm” … stay inside. We’d like to get through this with as minimal damage to human beings as possible, and after that property, but it’s human lives we are really worried about.’
The Mayor warned New Yorkers that Irene was a life-threatening storm and urged them to stay indoors to avoid flying debris, flooding or the risk of being electrocuted by downed power lines.
‘It is dangerous out there,’ he said, but added: ‘New York is the greatest city in the world and we will weather this storm.’
Times Square, often called the crossroads of the world, was almost deserted as shops boarded up windows and put sandbags outside entrances.
‘We just came to see how few people are in Times Square and then we’re going back,’ said Cheryl Gibson, who was on holiday in the city.
Construction work came to a standstill and workers at the World Trade Centre site dismantled a crane and secured equipment. Mayor Bloomberg said there would be no effect on the opening of the September 11 Memorial to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
Power company Con Edison brought in hundreds of extra utility workers from around the country. While Lower Manhattan is protected by a seawall and a network of pumps, Con Ed vice president John Mucci said they stood ready to turn off the power to about 6,500 customers in the event of severe flooding. Mr Mucci said it could take up to three days to restore the power if the cables became drenched in saltwater.
A spokesman for the New York Stock Exchange said it was prepared for the worst with its own backup generators.
Some 370,000 city residents were ordered to leave their homes in low-lying areas in the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. However many were unwilling to evacuate. Nicholas Vigliotti, 24, an auditor who lives in a high-rise building along the Brooklyn waterfront, said he saw no point.
‘Even if there was a flood, I live on the fifth floor,’ he said.
Hours earlier, the normally bustling streets had emptied out and the rumble of the subways came to a stop.
Many residents seemed to be taking it in their stride, staying off the streets but planning hurricane get-togethers and hot tub parties.
‘We already have the wine and beer, and now we’re getting the vodka,’ said Martin Murphy, a video artist who was shopping at a liquor store near Central Park with his girlfriend. ‘If it lasts, we have dozens of movies ready, and we’ll play charades and we’re going to make cards that say, “We survived Irene’
by Robbo Green