Hurricane Irene Downgraded to 'Tropical Storm'

Irene blamed for at least nine deaths in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida as it headed up the East Coast. About 3.3 million homes were without electricity and several million people were under evacuation orders.

Reuters
Reuters
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Reuters
Reuters

Hurricane Irene battered New York with heavy winds and driving rain on Sunday, knocking out power and flooding some of Lower Manhattan's deserted streets even as it lost some of its strength.

Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm on Sunday morning but was still sending waves crashing onto shorelines and flooding coastal suburbs.

Residents taking shelter from wind and flying sand as Hurricane Irene makes landfall in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina Saturday.Credit: AFP

There was about a foot of water in the streets at the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan and the tide seemed to be rising, although there was less damage than many had feared.

"It's not bad as we 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. "But I'm going to keep my eye on it. I know how to get out of here if I have to."

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.

Irene was blamed for at least nine deaths in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida as it headed up the East Coast. About 3.3 million homes were without electricity and several million people were under evacuation orders.

New York City's normally bustling streets were eerily quiet after authorities ordered tens of thousands of residents to evacuate low-lying areas and shut down its subways, airports and buses.

Forecasters said Irene still posed a serious threat of storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 4 to 8 feet in coastal areas from Virginia to Massachusetts. Isolated tornadoes in the New York area were possible.

The storm dumped up to eight inches of rain on the Washington region, but the capital appeared to have avoided major damage. Some bridges were closed but airports remained open and transit operated on a normal schedule.

Rick Meehan, mayor of Ocean City, Maryland, 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.

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 edge of the hurricane has finally got upon us," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the more than eight million people who live in New York as he warned that tropical storm-force winds would hit the city.

Times Square, often called the crossroads of the world, was almost empty as Irene rolled into the city with full force.

Broadway shows were canceled, coffee was hard to come by with Starbucks stores closed and burgers and fries were in short supply as McDonald's outlets were shut.

The city's streets were quiet although some people were out checking on the storm's damage.

"I was hoping to come out to see the worst," said Tom Wall, 38, a mechanical engineer dressed in sandals and an orange rain jacket as he walked along the South Street Seaport. "So far it's much less dramatic than I expected."

After Irene, weather watchers were keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Jose, which formed near Bermuda.

Bloomberg had warned New Yorkers 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.
In midtown Manhattan, there was a substantial police presence on the streets but most people heeded Bloomberg's warning to stay inside.

About 370,000 city residents were ordered to leave their homes in low-lying areas, many of them in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

Some refused to leave. 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".

Storm surges fears

Flood waters forced officials in Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, to evacuate a storm shelter, the mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, said on Twitter.

The Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irene's winds dropped to 65 miles per hour (100 km per hour) on Sunday morning but forecast a storm surge of up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) for Long Island and metropolitan New York. That could top the flood walls protecting the south end of Manhattan.

Summer vacationers fled beach towns and resort islands. More than a million people left the New Jersey shore and glitzy Atlantic City casinos were dark and empty.

This year has been one of the most extreme for weather in U.S. history, with e35 billion in losses so far from floods, tornadoes and heat waves.

President Barack Obama, who cut his vacation short on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard to return to the White House, was keeping a close eye on preparations for the hurricane.

Utility company Consolidated Edison warned that downtown Manhattan, including Wall Street, could face more blackouts as low-lying areas flooded.

When Irene hit the North Carolina coast on Saturday, winds howled through power lines, sheets of rain fell and streets were flooded or littered with tree branches.

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