NEW YORK (Reuters) - 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. By 1 a.m. ET the city’s Central Park had already gotten two inches of rain, with much more expected.
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 sales, 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. Most were in Staten Island though at least one was also out in Manhattan.
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 apple sauce.
“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.
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 apartment.
Reporting by Ben Berkowitz, Edith Honan, Basil Katz, Daniel Trotta, Martin Howell, Ed Krudy; Editing by Todd Easham