Hurricane Irene lashed New York with heavy winds and driving rain Sunday, flooding some of Lower Manhattan's deserted streets and large parts of the northeast, but the feared major devastation was avoided.
Despite the fact that the Big Apple dodged a big bullet when Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm right around the time it hit New York, the storm is being blamed for 22 deaths in six states along its path, and financial damages are expected to be staggering.
And many of the 65 million people along the East Coast who had prepared for Irene's onslaught for days as it roared along the seaboard as a Category 3, then a Cat 2, and finally, a Cat 1 hurricane, will continued to grapple with flooding, washed-out roads, and pockets of extensive damage for days and weeks, officials said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told NBC's "Meet the Press" that damages easily could run into billions of dollars, along the Atlantic coast and from inland river flooding.
Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm Sunday morning after marching up the East Coast, leaving as many as 3.6 million customers without electricity, forcing the closure of New York's mass transit system, and the cancellation of thousands of flights.
"It's safe to say that the worst of the storm up to and including New York and New Jersey has passed," Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano said late Sunday morning as the sun started to peek through the clouds in New York City.
She said pre-storm preparations dramatically reduced the loss of life, but warned that river flooding across the eastern seaboard posed a danger.
While weakened, the swirling storm still packed a wallop, sending waves crashing onto shorelines and flooding coastal suburbs and broad swathes of New Jersey, where residents reported basements full of water and numerous trees down.
There was about a foot of water in the streets at the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan before the tide began receding. There appeared to be less damage than many had feared, and New Yorkers shrugged it off.
"It's not bad as they said it would be. The streets are flooded but not as bad as I thought," said John Harris, 37, who defied an evacuation order and stayed home overnight in the Rockaways.
Wall Street's financial district seemed largely unaffected, as did ground zero, where the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is soon to be observed. The New York Mercantile Exchange building planned to open as usual on Monday, while the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq Stock Market also said they expected a normal trading day.
But the big question for residents and the millions who commute to work in the city each day, was whether the city's subways and public transportation would be allowed to resume in time for Monday's rush hour after being closed from noon on Saturday.
About 370,000 city residents were ordered to leave their homes in low-lying areas in an unprecedented move by the authorities. It was unclear when they would be allowed to return.
Heavy rains and wind forced the closure of three bridges leading to the Rockaways peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean, and further east on Long Island sand berms built to hold off the flooding and protect coastal businesses appeared to have failed. Six inches of rain fell on Central Park.
Irene was blamed for at least 11 deaths in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and Maryland as it churned up the East Coast.
By 11 a.m. EDT, Irene's winds had diminished to 60 mph and the center had reached Danbury, Conn., about 70 miles northeast of New York.
There was a general sense in New York that the storm, reported on breathlessly for days by television reporters, was not as bad as it could have been.
"The water looks really groovy, it's like in that movie 'The Perfect Storm,' — it's swelling every way and the wind is blowing it every way, it's heaving," said Jill Rubenstein, speaking from her third-floor apartment in an evacuation zone at the Harlem Yacht Club on City Island in the Bronx.
New York City's normally bustling streets were mostly quiet overnight but as the waters receded, tourists and locals began venturing out for a look around New York's Times Square, where Broadway shows had been canceled in anticipation of the bad weather.
In Astoria, Queens, about a dozen people were out on the waterfront overlooking Manhattan, some snapping photographs of a partially flooded playground.
The storm dumped up to eight inches of rain on the Washington region, but the capital avoided major damage. Some bridges were closed but airports remained open and transit operated on a normal schedule.
Rick Meehan, mayor of Ocean City, Md., said initial assessments showed flooding and continuing power outages in some areas of the seaside resort, but not much damage.
"It looks like we dodged a missile on this one," Meehan told the local Fox News station, WBOC News.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told NBC's "Meet the Press" he expects damages from Irene to be costly, possibly worth billions of dollars, along the Atlantic coast and from inland river flooding.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it could take several days to make preliminary damage assessments.
On the south shore of Long Island, Jim Nolan, a 55-year-old architect, was out making his own assessment of the area around his home on the shore of a lagoon at Copiague. But downed trees and flooding stopped him from driving very far.
"It was about as bad as I expected," he added of the storm. "The more scientific weather channels had a tropical storm, the high end news companies had doom and gloom reports of 80 to 90 miles an hour -- I just didn't believe it."
He had a busy night taking care of his 34-foot cabin cruiser tied to a dock by a number of lines that broke during the night. "About 3 O'clock two snapped, two snapped about four or five o'clock and one snapped half an hour ago," Nolan said. "It was nice and warm so I put my bathing suit on and went out there to work on it with my son," Nolan said.
From the Carolinas to Maine, tens of millions of people were in the path of Irene, which howled ashore in North Carolina on Saturday, dumping torrential rain, felling trees and knocking out power. The storm was forecast to pass over parts of Massachussets and Rhode Island later on Sunday.
After Irene, weather watchers were keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Jose, which formed near Bermuda.
This year has been one of the most extreme for weather in U.S. history, with $35 billion in losses so far from floods, tornadoes and heat waves.
Everyone feared the worst when Irene slammed Coney Island with 65-mph winds when it made landfall about 9 a.m. Irene delivered flooding to low-lying areas such as Manhattan’s Battery Park City and Brooklyn’s Coney Island who disregarded Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mandatory evacuation order faced what is now a tropical storm bringing as much as 15 inches of rain at a time when tides are at a monthly high across the region. Irene made landfall over Coney Island with 65-mph winds, the National Hurricane Center said at 9 a.m.
“We have dozens of crews that are out dealing with flooding conditions,” said Cas Holloway, New York City’s deputy mayor for operations, in a televised interview on WCBS.
The storm, which made landfall in North Carolina Saturday, prompted Manhattan residents and tourists to retreat inside apartments and hotels, casting an uneasy quiet on the “city that never sleeps.” Bloomingdale’s department store boarded display windows, Broadway theaters went dark. Pedestrians and vehicles were a rare sight on usually traffic-choked Manhattan streets.
In Long Beach, N.Y., the ocean breached defense berms and flooded into the town, where thousands of residents have remained despite orders to evacuate. At least one fire has been reported there, News12 Long Island reported, and a seawater surge at least a foot and a half deep is rolling across the island.
“We are completely surrounded by water, but we’re dry,” said A.J. Enos, 25, a Coast Guard veteran, who decided to stay in his two-story home on California Street.
Enos said he’d stocked up on peanut butter, jelly and Budweiser.
In Hoboken, New Jersey, a city of about 50,000 people on the Hudson River across from Manhattan, the river has risen to meet land in parts of the city and water is lapping against the edge and splashing on land.
“We’ve got flooding everywhere and flash floods in all different parts of the state,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said today on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday news program.
States as far north as Maine are evacuating residents and preparing for outages from the hurricane, with tropical storm-force winds extending outward from the center as much as 290 miles, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Residents in the New York metropolitan area and beyond were forced to stay close to home as trains and subways stopped.
Winds of up to 115 miles per hour whipped across the Eastern Seaboard, ripping power lines from poles and snapping trees in half.
More than 1 million of the homes and businesses without power were in Virginia and North Carolina, which bore the brunt of Irene's initial march. Then the storm knocked out power overnight to hundreds of thousands in Washington, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the New York City area, and Connecticut.
More than 480,000 New York City and suburban homes and businesses had lost power as the hurricane approached the metropolitan area.
Firefighters in Chocowinity, N.C., could hardly walk as they battled winds of 60 mph to rescue people from homes whose roofs had been blown off.
“Everybody’s talking New York City, New York City, and they forgot about North Carolina,” Fire Chief Tommy Pendley said in an interview. “I’ll tell you, if New York City gets this, they’re screwed.”
Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell said the storm may push waters up by as much as eight feet as it rolls through at high tide this evening, and the flooding is “going to be significant.” A hundred roads have been closed, as well as tunnels in the southeast part of the state, and cities including Newport News have established curfews, McDonnell said in a conference call with reporters at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The governor spoke of numerous houses and cars crushed by trees, though the extent won’t be known until today.
“This is a very dangerous time,” McDonnell said.
There were at least five storm-related fatalities in North Carolina, with three more in Virginia, and one in Maryland. In North Carolina, a woman was killed when a tree struck the car in which she was driving with her husband and child shortly after 5 p.m. in Sampson County, First Sgt. Tony Gibson of the State Highway Patrol said in a telephone interview. The husband and child survived, he said.
A 15-year-old Virginia girl vacationing at the beach was killed in a two-car accident in Wayne County shortly before 6 p.m. at an intersection that had lost power, Brad Deen, a spokesman at the state’s Joint Information Center, said by telephone.
Another North Carolina man was discovered in Pitt County in a vehicle that struck a tree, and a Nash County man was killed by a falling tree, Deen said. An Onslow County man also died of a heart attack Aug. 25 putting up plywood in preparation for Irene, he said.
In Newport News, Virginia, an 11-year-old boy was killed shortly after noon when a tree crashed onto the two-story apartment complex where he was with his mother, Kim Lee, a city spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview. The mother escaped, and a crane was needed to lift the tree, she said.
Another man died in Brunswick County, Virginia, when a tree fell on his vehicle, Maribeth Brewster, a spokeswoman for the state’s Emergency Operations Center, said in a telephone interview. A Chesterfield County man also died yesterday when a tree fell on a house, Beth Singer, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Emergency Operations Center said in a telephone interview, as did a woman in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, after a tree hit a house there late yesterday, Danielle Lueking, a spokeswoman for the state’s Emergency Management Agency, said by telephone.
Virginia and Washington-area residents are still collecting themselves after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake Aug. 23 centered in Virginia and now must deal with the hurricane.
The District of Columbia distributed about 5,000 sandbags at RFK Stadium to residents Aug. 26 until they were gone, according to the city’s website. The city handed out about 6,000 more before shutting down distribution at 3 p.m. yesterday after they ran out of sandbags.
Irene made landfall near Cape Lookout in North Carolina about 7:30 a.m. eastern time with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. Flooding closed several major roads, breached wastewater treatment plants and felled trees throughout the eastern part of the state, Governor Bev Perdue said.
“There is widespread damage to property and infrastructure along the coast,” Perdue said during a 6 p.m. news briefing in Raleigh.
Outer Banks Scene
On the Outer Banks, winds approaching 90 mph pushed water west out of the Pamlico Sound, leaving boats stranded on the mud at Scott Boatyard in Buxton. The ocean washed over a highway in Rodanthe, making that section of road impassible.
About 10 groups were stranded in vehicles or homes in Pamlico County in coastal North Carolina, including people taking refuge in attics to escape rising water, said David Spruill, the county’s emergency services director.
At Atlantic Beach, about 15 miles from Cape Lookout, the end of the wooden pier at the Sheraton Hotel was washed away, with waves slamming into the remaining section.
Dominion Resources Inc., which covers parts of North Carolina and Virginia, said 773,552 of its customers had lost electricity as of 5:45 p.m., with the heaviest concentration of outages in the Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia, areas. Three- quarters of its Richmond customers were without power, according to the company’s website.
Progress Energy Inc. reported about 247,000 customers had lost power in North and South Carolina. Duke Energy Corp. said about 11,250 of its customers in North Carolina were without electricity.
Some utilities farther north serving the Maryland, Washington and Delaware region, including Pepco Holdings Inc.’s Delmarva Power & Light and Constellation’s Baltimore Gas & Electric, were reporting outages rapidly climbing above 56,000 as the storm moved through.
Constellation Energy Group Inc. said the Unit 1 reactor at its Calvert Cliffs nuclear power station in Maryland has gone offline, while posing no threat to staff or the public.
“Due to heavy gusts of winds caused by Hurricane Irene, a large piece of aluminum siding dislodged from a building,” the company said in an e-mailed statement today. “The siding came into contact with our main transformer.”
It declared an “unusual event,” which is the lowest of four emergency classifications. The facility’s Unit 2 is stable and operating normally, it said.
The National Hurricane Center’s forecast shows Irene’s core reaching southern New England today.
Cape Cod couple Ryan Mann and Adrian Green, scheduled to be married in a beach ceremony in the town of Harwich, Massachusetts yesterday, moved the event up to 12:30 p.m. from 4 p.m. That gave their 60 out-of-town guests time to get off the cape ahead of “our uninvited guest, Irene,” Mann, 29, said in a telephone interview.
More than 1 million people left the New Jersey shore in response to orders to evacuate, and 1,500 National Guard troops were deployed, Governor Chris Christie said at a news conference.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued a prepare-to- deploy order for 6,500 active duty troops from all the services to support hurricane relief efforts if ordered.
New York City opened shelters after ordering 370,000 residents to leave low-lying neighborhoods and began an unprecedented shutdown of all mass transit. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority halted buses, subways, and trains in five counties around Philadelphia. No Amtrak trains will operate in the Northeast today, the company said in a release.
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