Sunday, August 28, 2011

East River tops its banks, spilling into Lower Manhattan

(CNN) -- The East River and the Hudson River topped their banks Sunday morning, sending water pouring into New York City, where hundreds of thousands of people had evacuated and millions more were hunkered down to wait out the massive storm that churned offshore.

Flooding was reported in parts of Lower Manhattan and in Greenwich Village, where first-floor apartments were flooded in some areas. Parts of Tenth Avenue on the west side were blocked and the Hudson River was covering parts of piers in the water. A facility for the New York Department of Sanitation was also flooded.

The north tube of the Holland Tunnel, from Lower Manhattan to New Jersey, was closed, and traffic was being diverted farther north to the Lincoln Tunnel.

Authorities had halted public transportation, closed bridges and tunnels and buttoned up ports, essentially locking down the city of more than 8 million people as Hurricane Irene began to lash the city with wind and rain. By 9 a.m., the system had been downgraded to a tropical storm, but the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center said that that didn't mean the end of the flooding. "The tidal flood event is under way," said Bill Read. "Huge waves in beaches, river flooding, power outages."

But, he promised, "Eventually you'll see a reduction in the flooding; then, the focus is on New England."

Earlier, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said some 370,000 people should evacuate their residences in low-lying areas.

The center of the storm was expected to make landfall after 10 a.m. near the Long Island city of Long Beach, where massive berms were already breached by 8 a.m., with water pushing northward into town. The water ripped a lifeguard building from its foundation and streets were flooded.

Bloomberg ordered evacuations for Long Beach Island, including Atlantic Beach, Lido Beach and Point Lookout.

The mandatory evacuations, which were ordered in parts of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island, were a first in the city's history, he said.

CNN iReporter and Queens resident Anne Egan, who was watching events unfold from her house three doors down from the beach wall, said she disregarded the evacuation order because she was afraid of looters. "You can see the waves breaking on (the beach wall)," she said. "I was a little panicked approaching high tide, which was about 7:30 a.m. But now that the peak of high tide has passed us, I'm not as nervous. The waves are just huge out there."

More than 865,360 people were without power in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut by early Sunday, authorities said.

Residents lugging suitcases and cradling pets lined up outside temporary shelters after Bloomberg ordered the evacuation.

Throughout the city, empty shelves greeted last-minute shoppers at stores. Caution tapes barricaded the turnstiles at subway stops.

The city wore a deserted look. Except for the few cabs picking up fares on rain-slicked street or the curious pedestrian struggling with his umbrella, the usual landmarks -- Times Square, Grand Central Station, the financial district -- were devoid of traffic.

Frederico Martins of Williston Park, New York, said he found the bottled beverages aisles almost empty at a Long Island store. "People here are taking it very seriously. Better to be safe than sorry," he said.

Early Sunday morning, John Muccini was making last-minute preparations to ride out the storm in his 25th floor apartment in Manhattan's Gramercy Park.

Muccini double-checked windows and filled the bathtub with water to serve as an emergency supply.

"I don't think the island of Manhattan is going to turn into 'Lord of the Flies.' I don't think the world is going to forget about us," he said.

But he conceded that he was taking precautions, having lived through a massive power outage that struck New York City in 2003.

"I've got food and water to get through a few days," he said.

In Brooklyn, Seunh Hong watched in despair as the water in his shop's basement rose to his knees.

"Way worse than I'd expected," he said. "It is absolutely horrible. Afterwards we have to spend lot of time and money, (and) energy for fixing them up."

Many in New York began preparing days ago for the arrival of Irene, stocking up on essentials.

But by late Saturday, most stores, restaurants and bars were closed.

"We've been staying at home because there's really no way to get around," said Allysia Matthews, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "Even if you want to go anywhere, they're closed or there's no way of getting there."

The bread shelves were bare early Sunday at the Associated Supermarket on Manhattan's Upper West Side, according to Aaron Herman, who said more than 1,000 people had stopped in Saturday to buy the "essentials."

By early Sunday, as the storm began to lash the city, the streets in his neighborhood near 96th Street were empty.

"For a city that never sleeps, it's clearly taking a nap," Herman said.

Jon Michael Gimpel, a resident of the Upper West Side, likened the emptiness of the streets to the eerie aftermath of September 11, 2001.

"We got cabin fever and walked around," said Gimpel, a system engineer. "A lot of shops are closed. No one knows what to do."

New York City's massive public transportation system came to a screeching halt late Saturday, with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority stopping all bus, subway and train service.

Across the river in New Jersey, Nick Chavez was settling into to his Edenton home near the Jersey Shore to wait out the storm.

A number of his neighbors had voluntarily evacuated in Monmouth County, though Chavez said he felt safe enough to stay in his home.

But in Manhattan, Mark Penza was conducting business as usual at his BillyMarks West bar where he was serving more than a dozen patrons early Sunday.

"I'm keeping an eye on the weather. ...I'm playing it by ear," said Penza, who co-owns the bar. "But c'mon, this is Manhattan."
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