Irene: New York City Shuts Down

A city renowned for never sleeping went into self-imposed shutdown during Saturday as normal life ground to a halt. The transport system, including all trains and airports, closed from noon, stranding thousands of tourists from Britain and around the world.

Victoria Gray, 28, from London, who is on holiday in New York, said: “New York seems to be going into shut down.

The transport system was closed from noon, most shops have shut and are using sand bags and boarding. There don’t seem to be any locals on the streets – just tourists.

“The weather is beginning to take a turn for the worst and the locals that still around seem very concerned.

“We headed out to get some supplies earlier as there doesn’t seem to be anyone working in our hotel – the city has literally shut down. Calm before the storm, but the strangest atmosphere.”

Broadway went “black” as all shows were cancelled, sports games and music concerts were called off and galleries and museum were also shut as city authorities did their best to keep people off the streets in an attempt to minimise injuries from flying debris and storm force winds.

Normally-bustling streets were unusually quiet for a summer Saturday as the first rains arrived. But on Thursday and Friday, many New Yorkers had stocked up on food, water, flashlights, batteries, generators and other survival supplies.

The shopping frenzy compensated some stores for what will be an exceptionally quiet weekend.

“Business is better than Christmas or Thanksgiving,” said an employee at Schatzie’s butchers on the Upper West Side which had sold out of meat by Friday evening.

And just across the Hudson river in Frank Sinatra’s birthplace of Hoboken, New Jersey, a mandatory evacuation order was backed up by an instruction to bars to close at 8pm in an attempt to persuade stragglers to leave, or at least stay home.

New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie pulled no punches when he told people to move inland. “Get the hell off the beach,” he said. “You’re done, you’ve maximised your tan.”

Mr Bloomberg, who was heavily criticised for his tardy and laid-back approach to the “great blizzard” last Christmas, has gone on the offensive in the face of this onslaught by Mother Nature.

“This is going to be a very serious storm no matter what the track is,” he declared during a visit to Coney Island, which will be pounded by the surge.

“Staying behind is dangerous, staying behind is foolish and it’s against the law. Waiting until the last minute is not a smart thing to do. This is life-threatening.”

In practice, the evacuation order is unenforceable. But ignoring it effectively means that individuals have surrendered their right to expect automatic rescue – and hence to bring any subsequent legal complaints in a highly litigious country.

Well aware of the opprobrium heaped on his predecessor George W Bush for his handling of Hurricane Katrina exactly six years ago, President Barack Obama oversaw federal emergency preparations from the White House.

The storm could be “extremely dangerous and costly”, he said after flying back to Washington a day early from his family holiday on the exclusive island of Martha’s Vineyard, which will also feel Irene’s force later on Sunday.

Federal authorities were lambasted for their reaction to the flooding of New Orleans after canal levees broke during Katrina, killing 1,800 people and causing $80 billion in damage.

The storm was downgraded on Saturday to a category one storm, the lowest hurricane rating. But it will still pack wind gusts of up to 100mph at times and its colossal size and slow speed turn it into a massive rainmaker that will cross swathes of the mid-Atlantic and New England as it tracks north.

At least half a million people lost power in North Carolina and Virginia in the first hours after landfall. Washington also declared a state of emergency and the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Memorial has been postponed.

The eye of the storm crossed the North Carolina coast near Cape Lookout at around 7.30am locally and the first fatalities were soon reported there.

A 21-year-old was killed when his car aquaplaned into a tree, another was felled by a falling tree limb and third man was reportedly swept out to sea, while a fourth man died from a heart attack as he boarded up his home.

Winds howled through the power lines, up to 17 inches of rain fell in sheets and streets were flooded or littered with signs and fallen trees along the North Carolina coastline.

In all, more than a million people were covered by evacuation orders along the east coast, including tens of thousands of holidaymakers who had to curtail their summer vacations.

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