Published August 27, 2011
New York – NEW YORK -- The nation's largest subway system began to shut down Saturday and the typically bustling city became unusually quiet as the first rain from Hurricane Irene fell on Manhattan.
Sidewalks, streets and bridges were nearly empty. Broadway shows and sporting events were canceled. Businesses were closed and subway riders raced to catch the last trains.
In an unprecedented move, more 370,000 people in flood-prone areas were told to get out ahead of the storm. There was no specific number on how many people had followed the order, but only 1,400 people were staying in city shelters. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said by some building estimates, between 50 to 80 percent of people had left.
At the Seventh Avenue station in Brooklyn's Park Slope section, more than a dozen people waited for one of the final subway runs.
"What I'm hoping is that they will run trains for the next hour or two to pick up the stragglers," said Kate Sandberg, who was headed to visit a friend.
The city had begged people for days not to wait until the last minute, and offered rides out of the danger area to residents who needed it. Nursing homes and hospitals started evacuating people Thursday.
It was the first time the city has shut down the entire subway system because of weather. Final subway and bus runs started at noon and it would take about eight hours before the entire transit system was shuttered, city officials said.
Several New York landmarks were inside the evacuation zone, including the ferries that take tourists to the Statue of Liberty. Construction stopped throughout the city, and workers at the site of the World Trade Center dismantled a crane and secured equipment.
Bloomberg said there would be no effect on the Sept. 11 memorial opening the day after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
On Wall Street, sandbags were placed around subway grates nearest the East River, which is expected to surge as the hurricane nears New York.
Bloomberg warned those who decided to stay that elevators in public housing apartments would be shut down. Other high-rises were also likely to stop elevators so people don't get trapped inside them if the power does go out. And the city's largest utility said it may cut off power to 6,500 customers in Lower Manhattan and Wall Street if the flooding gets bad. Turning off electricity ahead of time helps reduce the damage to power lines.
In Brooklyn, people trickled into a shelter at a large high school, carrying garbage bags of clothing. In some cases, they pushed carts of personal belongings and luggage.
"We'd rather be safe than sorry," said Evette Roblebo, who arrived in a car filled with friends. She said she would have come earlier but she had to work. "Our building is old. So I took out the air conditioners, closed the windows and locked up. But I think we'll be fine."
In at least one housing project in Red Hook, a low-lying area in Brooklyn where the shipping lanes from the Erie Canal ended, residents said management told them they were going to shut down the water and power to get them to leave.
"We had to leave," said Jacquelyne Pollard. "But we'd rather be here where there's water and power and be sure we're safe." she said.
The transit system won't reopen until at least Monday, after pumps remove water from flooded subway stations. Even on a dry day, 13 million to 15 million gallons of water are removed from the tunnels deep underground. The Long Island Rail Road and other tracks were also being stopped.
The city's public transit system carries about 5 million passengers on an average weekday and officials didn't immediately report any problems during the final hours of the evacuation.
At the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, stragglers scurried down the steps of the 4 and 5 lines to Brooklyn.
"This makes my day!" Randy Callo said as the doors closed on one of the final trains.
Salvatore Laudadio missed that train, and was sweating it out for one more ride to Brooklyn. He had already been on several buses and subway transfers.
"I got kind of a late start so I've been a little worried but I think this will all work out," he said, holding his bags.
Then the train rolled up and he got on.
The last time the system was seriously hobbled was an August 2007 rainstorm that disabled or delayed every one of the city's subway lines. It was also shut down after the 9/11 attacks and during a 2005 strike.
In Brooklyn's famed Coney Island, known for its boardwalk and amusement park, Bloomberg urged residents who needed to leave to get out right away.
"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 until gale-force winds," he said. "The time to leave is right now."
Transit fares and tolls were waived in evacuated areas. Officials hoped most residents would stay with family and friends, and nearly 100 shelters, with a capacity of 71,000 people, were opened.
At 17 Battery Place, a 36-floor luxury rental building, Daryl Edelman and his wife, Regina, were leaving -- suitcase packed and their small white dog, Bitsy Bananas, tucked into a case.
"What the mayor did -- shutting down the transportation system -- is more dangerous than the storm," said Daryl Edelman, a comic book writer. "People could be left stranded -- especially the elderly."
Bloomberg said he hoped the evacuation wasn't necessary, but officials needed to be cautious with what is considered a dangerous storm.
"You can't prepare for the best case. You have to prepare for the worst case," he said.
Bloomberg weathered criticism after a Dec. 26 storm dumped nearly two feet of snow that seemed to catch officials by surprise. Subway trains, buses and ambulances got stuck in the snow, some for hours, and streets were impassable for days. Bloomberg ultimately called it an "inadequate and unacceptable" response.
Taxis in New York City were to switch from metered fares to zone fares, meaning riders would be charged by which part of the city they were being driven to, rather than how far they were being taken.
About 4,500 taxis were on the streets of Manhattan, which was just below an average day.
Cab driver Mohammed Hassan started a shift early Saturday at his home in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn and made his way to midtown Manhattan. Downtown was already empty, he said.
"If it's dangerous, I'm going home," said Hassan, a cabbie for 28 years. But "I need the money."
The five main New York City-area airports also closed at noon Saturday to arriving domestic and international flights. Three of them, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty, are among the nation's busiest.
Irene made landfall in North Carolina on Saturday, and was expected to roll up the Interstate 95 corridor reaching New York on Sunday. A hurricane warning was issued for the city Friday afternoon, the first since Gloria in 1985.
"Heed the warnings," Bloomberg urged, his shirt soaking as the rain fell. "It isn't cute to say `I'm tougher than any storm.' I hope this is not necessary, but it's certainly prudent."
About 1.6 million people live in Manhattan, and about 6.8 million live in the city's other four boroughs.
In the past 200 years, New York has seen only a few significant hurricanes. In September 1821, a hurricane raised tides by 13 feet in an hour and flooded the southernmost tip of Manhattan in an area that now includes Wall Street and the World Trade Center memorial. In 1938, a storm dubbed the Long Island Express came ashore about 75 miles east of the city on neighboring Long Island and then hit New England, killing 700 people and leaving 63,000 homeless.
And in 1944, Midtown was flooded, where Times Square, Broadway theaters and the Empire State Building are located.