Sunday, August 28, 2011

Flooding begins as Tropical Storm Irene lashes toward New York City

New York (CNN) -- River waters began began flooding into Manhattan's streets as Irene lashed New York City with wind gusts and torrential rains Sunday morning.

Even as Irene weakened to a tropical storm, authorities warned that its impact would not wane.

Authorities said the storm had knocked out power to more than 3 million people and was responsible for at least 10 deaths as it pummeled some of the biggest cities in the Northeast.

In lower Manhattan, the Hudson River overflowed, sending massive amounts of water spilling over jogging paths and pouring into at least one nearby apartment building. Water also lapped over the banks of New York City's East River.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed the north tube of the Holland Tunnel due to flooding, and CNN affiliate WCBS reported serious flooding in Brooklyn.

The threat of flooding extended beyond New York City. Outside Philadelphia, waters had already climbed to street-sign levels in Darby, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said, sending "couches, furniture, all kinds of stuff floating down the street."

Waves pounded the shoreline in Long Beach, New York, as water poured underneath the boardwalk and into the city's downtown area.

By 9 a.m. ET Sunday, Irene had weakened to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Irene slammed into Little Egg Inlet, New Jersey, about 5:30 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said.

In New York, streets in "the city that never sleeps" looked barren and desolate as residents braced for the full brunt of Irene.

Shelves upon empty shelves greeted last-minute shoppers at stores. Caution tape barricaded the turnstiles at subway stops.

Allysia Matthews and her husband holed up in their Manhattan apartment Sunday morning.

"The streets in general tend to start flooding" during rainfall, Matthews said. "We've been staying at home because there's really no way to get around."

Earlier Sunday, the hurricane hit Ocean City, Maryland, leaving some sections of the city without power. Officials stopped sending vehicles to respond to 911 calls after winds topped 50 mph, said Bob Rhode of the city's office of emergency management.

But Ocean City appears to have endured the blows without any major damage. While Irene dumped 11 inches of rain by early Sunday morning, there was no major flooding.

Powerful gusts were so strong that pedestrians struggled to stay upright. Storm surges along the East Coast turned at least one beach into an extension of the ocean.

A nuclear power reactor in Calvert Cliffs, Maryland, automatically went offline late Saturday after a piece of aluminum siding from a building struck a transformer amid strong winds.

"The facility is safe; there is no impact to employees or our neighbors," said Mark Sullivan, spokesman for the Constellation Energy Nuclear Group. "There is no threat."

In New Jersey, ferocious winds blew tree branches horizontally. But George Nikolis of Jersey City insisted on riding out the storm.

"You only see something like this maybe once every 25 years, and I wanted to be here to capture this historic moment," Nikolis said.

Officials have blamed at least 10 deaths on Irene.

Five people died as a result of the storm in North Carolina, and three were killed in Virginia due to falling trees, emergency officials said.

A 55-year-old male surfer died around noon in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, and a woman in Queenstown, Maryland, died after a tree knocked a chimney through the roof of her home, officials said.

Irene made landfall Saturday in North Carolina near Cape Lookout at the southern end of the Outer Banks. It stomped across the state for most of the day.

The storm ripped off roofs, toppled trees, induced "massive flooding" near the coast and brought down power lines statewide, according to the state emergency management division.

The hurricane unleashed 10 to 14 inches of rain over much of North Carolina and pushed a 4-foot storm surge into the Chesapeake Bay, the National Hurricane Center said.

As of midnight Saturday, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, had endured 31 hours of nonstop rainfall.

Reports of tornadoes came from several states, including North Carolina and Virginia -- but a final determination will have to be made by the National Weather Service.

The weather agency issued tornado watches -- indicating favorable conditions for a tornado to form, even when one hasn't been reported yet -- through Sunday morning for several areas, including New Jersey and New York City.

But Irene's fury is less about wind speed as it is about rainfall and flooding.

The storm is a Category 1 hurricane -- meaning maximum sustained winds are less than 95 mph. But residents on the East Coast are now dealing with torrential rainfall and the threat of Irene hurling walls of ocean water onto land.

"It's pretty tough, honestly," Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said of conditions Saturday night. "So far, it's still early for us and it's already hitting us pretty hard."

The storm is also wreaking havoc on transportaton in several major cities.

Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Jersey have suspended all transit service, with no subway and bus service on Sunday. And the Philadelphia International Airport will remain closed until at least 4 p.m. Sunday, airport spokeswoman Victoria Lupica said.

In New York -- where the city ordered the unprecedented evacuation of 370,000 people from low-lying areas on Friday-- even residents who aren't being ordered to leave could face an arduous few days following Irene's tour of the city.

New York's transit system might not be fully running again until at least Monday, high-rise buildings are being instructed to turn off elevators and utility ConEd may have to cut power to Manhattan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

"This is a storm where, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can be fatal," he warned.
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