Millions without power as Irene rips into US
Nearly 10,000 flights cancelled and historic first mandatory evacuations of New York city ordered
With one-fifth of the country's population in its path, Hurricane Irene began a menacing slow crawl up the eastern seaboard of the US, lashing southern states with deadly winds and rain and prompting historic evacuations of New York city and the New Jersey coast.
Within hours of making landfall, the storm had unleashed flash floods and sea surges that left more than a million homes without power and had claimed at least six lives, several of them due to falling trees and branches. While the storm did not reach the ferocity of the earliest forecasts, its breadth and its expected course put it among a very few in the past 200 years that threatened to pound the heavily populated metropolitan areas of Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and possibly even as far north as Boston.
New York, for one, had never experienced anything like this before: a mandatory evacuation of low-lying parts the city, the stockpiling of food and batteries that emptied supermarkets, the mountains of sandbags in doorways around lower Manhattan, and a complete shutdown of the largest public transport system in the world. Irene was expected to pass over Washington last night and reach New York by morning. Approaching 10,000 flights were cancelled, and the New York area's airports said they would stop accepting any incoming flights from lunchtime yesterday, threatening to ground tens of thousands of travellers for days to come. The insurance industry last night put the losses from the storm at $1bn and counting.
Battering the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia with sustained winds of 80mph and gusts into the triple digits, Irene ripped boats from their moorings and flooded homes. An 11-year-old boy was killed when a tree smashed through the roof of his apartment. A man died in North Carolina when his hydroplaning car crashed into a tree. One man had a heart attack while attempting to board up his home against the oncoming storm. And a 55-year-old surfer in Florida died from an injury sustained in heavy surf caused by Irene.
Further north, Americans watched news of the advancing storm with alarm at the damage being caused, but also some relief that it had been downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane and was likely to have eased further by the time it reached them. However, authorities said there remained countless dangers, from flying debris in built-up areas because of the effects of a storm surge at high tide.
In New York, hurricane preparations that would be common practice across swaths of the southern US were being tried in the country's most populous city yesterday, its residents by turns fearful, excited and sceptical about the whole exercise. The streets of Lower Manhattan were eerily deserted as rains began during the afternoon, hours after the first ever weather-related shutdown of the city's subway system.
The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, reacted to the apparently reduced potency of the storm by increasing the shrillness of his warnings to residents. Many New Yorkers appeared not to be heeding a mandatory evacuation order covering reclaimed land in the financial district of Manhattan and coastal parts of the outer boroughs. Those areas, home to about 350,000 people, were due to be emptied by 5pm local time last night. "Let's stop thinking this is something we can play with," Mr Bloomberg said. "Staying behind is dangerous, staying behind is foolish and it's against the law. and we urge everyone in the evacuation zones not to wait. The time to leave is now. It isn't cute to say, 'I'm tougher than any storm'."
Some Manhattanites were taking no chances. At the marina in Battery Park City, close by the site of the World Trade Center, sailing club members brought in boats that were usually moored off the Statue of Liberty and stripped their own vessels. "I'm taking off anything that could come loose, because you don't want stuff flying around," said Gareth Gostom, after removing sails and monitors from his craft. "The thing that worries me is a big surge. The boats could come loose. The docks themselves could come loose."
Paddy Mullen said he would be crewing a yacht, one of many moored in the financial district by rich New Yorkers, taking it up the Hudson River to safety. His apartment in Battery Park, in the evacuation zone, is typical for young New Yorkers. "Being on the water is cheaper for me than trying buy the supplies I need. I don't even have a colander."
Sailing club members might be used to the potentially dangerous effects of the elements, but to many of the urban dwellers this far up the coast, the dire warnings from officials had an air of unreality. Lots of people seemed unwilling to leave, City councilman Michael Nelson told Reuters. His Brooklyn district includes Brighton Beach, which was ordered to evacuate. "My sense is that the majority of the people are staying put." On what would normally be one of its most packed nights of the summer holiday season, Broadway was completely dark last night. Sports games, too, were cancelled. Officials warned not to assume that transport systems would quickly return to normal, raising questions over the ultimate cost in lost business if disruption continues.
A million people were evacuated from the New Jersey shore, and all the major casinos in Atlantic City were shut down. The state governor, Chris Christie, spent the afternoon in a showdown with residents in the boardwalk town, sending buses to circle a high-rise building where 600 senior citizens were refusing to leave.
All along the coast, beaches were largely empty, save for the crews of TV news channels whose reporters competed to appear most blustered. Some thrill-seeking surfers, though, defied warnings to take advantage of the rising waves. President Barack Obama and his family cut short their holiday in Martha's Vineyard to return to Washington to ensure they did not get stranded by the storm and so as to better monitor developments. Last night, he visited the headquarters of Fema, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, responsible for storm planning, rescue and clean-up. "Don't wait and don't delay," he said. "I cannot stress this highly enough. If you are in the projected path, you have to take precautions now."
In the nation's capital, a dedication ceremony to mark the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr monument today was called off, and scores of other events were postponed. The city ran out of sandbags on Friday night, but yesterday was able to resume handouts to residents.
The Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, approved a "prepare-to-deploy" order for 6,500 active-duty military to support relief efforts if required. Philadelphia also shut down its mass transit system, and the US Coast Guard shut the Port of Philadelphia.
As far north as Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick had declared a state of emergency and called up the National Guard to help with any necessary rescues and clean up. Irene could still be serving up 75mph gusts by the time it reaches the southern tip of the state, say forecasters.
Independent News Service