* Streets of largest U.S. city nearly abandoned
* Some seek shelter while others defy evacuation order
* Power utility may cut off electricity
* Major freeways either side of Manhattan already flooding
By Ben Berkowitz and Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK, Aug 28 The force of Hurricane Irene
began to build in New York City early on Sunday morning, with
major roads already flooding and the tourist mecca of Times
Square abandoned to a hearty few.
Local forecasters said the path of Irene was shifting
westward, putting the city squarely on the wrong side of the
storm and raising the prospect of 10-foot storm surges.
If the forecasts bear out, it would lend some support to
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's order for the evacuation of low-lying
areas such as Manhattan's financial district. Just across the
Hudson River from the district in Hoboken, New Jersey, an
evacuation shelter had to be evacuated itself due to flooding.
"Conditions are expected to deteriorate rapidly," a
tired-looking Bloomberg told a news conference late on
Saturday, urging people to stay indoors. "The storm is now
finally hitting New York City. The winds will increase, the
rain will increase and the tidal surge will increase."
By all accounts, most heeded his plea to shelter in place,
but Times Square still proved irresistible to some tourists who
had nothing better to do.
"We just came to see how few people are in Times Square and
then we're going back," said Cheryl Gibson, an Edmonton,
Canada, resident who has been on vacation in the city for a
week and had been planning to go to the other side of the
Hudson River on Sunday.
"We can't get to New Jersey and I'm not sure it's any
better there," she said.
Further up the street, on a pedestrian mall, a group of
firefighters from Vancouver in town for the World Police and
Fire Games played an impromptu game of street hockey.
Despite the pouring rain, many played bare-chested, but the
game did not last -- approximately 20 New York police officers
broke up the game with no arrests.
By mid-evening, one of the many umbrella sellers who pop up
all over New York whenever it rains was sold out -- he said it
had been a good day for, but he was not planning to take
shelter from the storm.
"My shelter used to be on the trains but now they stopped
that," said the man, who declined to give his real name but
said "Call me Motown."
"This is what keeps me going," he added, pointing to the
small portable radio playing music in his cart. "Hey, listen,
it's 'Walking in the rain,'" he said with a laugh.
While Motown was in good cheer despite the storm, the
situation grew increasingly serious overnight. At least 8,000
customers were already without electricity in the city, hours
before the worst of the wind and rain hit.
Both the Henry Hudson Parkway on Manhattan's west side and
FDR Drive to the island's east were starting to flood, with
heavy pooling and tow trucks strategically idling on the sides
of the road. The city's mass transit system, including subways,
was shut down from the middle of Saturday.
After Bloomberg ordered the unprecedented evacuation of
370,000 people living in neighborhoods near the water's edge,
more than 3,700 took refuge in the city's shelters, thousands
more fled to the homes of friends or relatives and others
defiantly stayed behind.
A smattering of food and liquor stores stayed open while
the public transit system that moves 8.5 million people each
weekday halted operations, also a first.
The giant 580-mile (930-km)-wide storm unleashed 8O miles
per hour (130 km per hour) winds, grounding aircraft all along
the heavily populated eastern seaboard.
While shelters were mostly empty, others such as the John
Adams High School in Queens overflowed.
At the Brooklyn Tech High School shelter, evacuees watched
weather reports on a large television screen in the auditorium
while others dined on mozzarella sticks, string beans, milk and
"I didn't want to leave (home), I wanted to stay, but I
feared for my life. I didn't want to get stuck in the dark and
in the flood," said Margie Robledo, 58, of Coney Island, who
just arrived in New York from Puerto Rico, where the storm had
hit days earlier.
CALM IN THE DANGER ZONE
Others defied the evacuation order after Bloomberg
announced police would not enforce it. Despite the persistent
warnings and ominous skies, the neighborhood around Brooklyn's
Coney Island -- within the danger zone -- was calm. Parked cars
lined the streets, and there was no sign of a mass exodus.
"They are right, we should be evacuating, but we are not,"
said John Visconti, 47, who owns an auto repair business and
lives on the ground floor of his building in the nearby
Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn. "We just want to stay home and
hope for the best. We should be OK."
The evacuation zones included shiny apartment buildings in
Manhattan's wealthy Battery Park City, working class Red Hook
in Brooklyn and run-down public housing in Coney Island -- all
neighborhoods at the water's edge.
"If the neighborhood is eventually legitimately flooded, I
have food and books and whiskey," said attorney Neal D'Amato,
31, sipping a beer at the Red Hook Bait and Tackle shop bar.
He said he would ride out the storm in his fourth-floor