Hurricane Irene sped toward a shuttered New York City yesterday with 120kph winds, killing nine people and knocking out power to 3 million homes as the massive storm drenched the US east coast.
Irene had an enormous wingspan — 805km wide — and threatened 65 million people on the east coast, estimated to be the largest number of Americans ever affected by a single storm. It unloaded 30cm of rain on southern states before reaching New Jersey.
New York turned eerily quiet as the city hunkered down, crippled after the entire transit system was shut down because of weather for the first time in history. All the city’s airports were closed, with more than 9,000 flights canceled.
“The time for evacuation is over. Everyone should now go inside and stay inside,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said late on Saturday.
With steady, heavy rain falling in the US’ largest city, there was nothing left to do but wait. There were sandbags on Wall Street, tarps over subway grates and plywood on windows — at least ones low enough to reach.
About 370,000 people had been ordered to move to safer ground, although great numbers appeared to have stayed put.
The National Hurricane Center said early yesterday that Irene was speeding up as it moved to the north-northeast at a speed of 40kph. It still had maximum sustained winds of 120kph with the hurricane’s eye only about 64km south-southwest of New York City.
Forecasters said there was a chance a storm surge on the fringes of lower Manhattan could send seawater streaming into the maze of underground vaults that hold the city’s cables and pipes, knocking out power to thousands and crippling the nation’s financial capital.
Officials feared water lapping at Wall Street, the site of the former World Trade Center and the luxury high-rise apartments of Battery Park City.
Hours before the storm’s center reached New York, a 93kph wind gust hit John F. Kennedy International Airport and a storm surge of more than 1m struck New York Harbor.
Battery Park City in lower Manhattan was virtually deserted as rain and gusty winds pummeled streets and whipped trees. Officials were bracing for a storm surge of up to 1m that could flood or submerge the promenade along the Hudson River.
A nuclear reactor at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs went offline automatically when winds knocked off a large piece of aluminum siding late on Saturday night. Constellation Energy Nuclear Group said the facility and all employees were safe.