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No Broadway, no transit: Hurricane Irene puts New York on hold

As the storm approached, the city was unusually quiet. Some people wandered Times Square wondering what to do.

August 27, 2011|By Geraldine Baum, Steven Zeitchik and Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Workers place sandbags in front of tne New York Stock Exchange in preparation for possible flooding from Hurricane Irene.
Workers place sandbags in front of tne New York Stock Exchange in preparation… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — By late Saturday, New York just wasn't itself anymore.

All 25,000 garbage cans were turned upside and shoved against buildings. The subways and buses were idle. Theaters, parks and airport departure gates were closed. Even a Starbucks on Madison Avenue didn't open. And if you had a D battery, you could name your price.

As Hurricane Irene barreled toward New York, the city was as quiet as a Christmas morning.

PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene

Presented with a potential disaster that afforded some prep time, New Yorkers took full advantage of two days of warnings and unprecedented orders. Many of the 370,000 residents in low-lying areas did as they were told and evacuated. And, knowing the mass-transit system would grind to halt starting at noon, people got where they had to go.

Throughout the day, city officials continued to emphasize the big fears: high winds that could knock out windows and topple trees, and water surges that threatened to submerge lower Manhattan and shut down Wall Street into this week.

Con Edison officials said that they had already shut off certain steam pipes in the Wall Street area Saturday, and that if the East River breached its banks and saltwater seeped into equipment, they would power down completely, which would affect 6,500 customers.

A spokesman for the utility said if that happened "it would be a couple of days" before the company could turn on the power.

The New York Stock Exchange has backup generators and can run on its own, a spokesman told the Associated Press.

The prospect of no power and other problems raised by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg had New Yorkers waiting in long lines outside grocery stores to buy supplies such as batteries, bread and hamburger meat. They were also nailing plywood to their front doors and piling sandbags on their streets.

Yvonne McKenzie recognized familiar warnings from her native Jamaica, where she experienced many hurricanes, so she fled to a Brooklyn technical college being used as an evacuation center, one of 91 set up by the city.

As she settled down on one of about 180 blue cots set up in the gymnasium, McKenzie said she had left her home in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood because she couldn't get out of her mind the waterfront just down the street.

"I figured, 'Let me escape while I can,'" McKenzie said. "I'm not alarmed. I'm not afraid. But I didn't want to be flooded out."

In other parts of Brooklyn, normally busy streets were virtually empty. Shopkeepers taped windowpanes. Playgrounds were deserted, and the usual sounds of a warm summer weekend — music drifting from open windows, children squealing, televisions blaring from bars — were gone as people closed their windows against the approaching storm.

In Times Square, normally bustling on a Saturday afternoon in advance of Broadway matinees, theater patrons were left to wander the streets in search of something to do.

At the American Eagle store on 46th Street, a line formed around the block as tourists waited to enter one of the few nonrestaurant businesses that remained open.

Sebastian Tribbie, a young representative of the Ha! Comedy Club, sold 200 tickets by 4 p.m. for an evening performance — about quadruple what he would normally sell, he said.

"My pitch is just 'We're open and we have alcohol,'" he said, laughing. "I mean, it's that easy. There's literally nothing else open." He said the club's proprietors had paid to keep performers in hotels overnight so that the show could go on.

Other theater operators were frustrated that the transit system was shut down so early. Officials said this had to be done well in advance of the storm's arrival because of the complexity involved in winding down the largest mass-transit system in the Western Hemisphere. But that didn't seem to satisfy Ed Gaynes, a partner of the popular off-Broadway St. Luke's Theatre.

Bloomberg "could have at least let us have matinee business on Saturday afternoon before the rain comes," he said.

In Chelsea, brunch venues such as Moran's Restaurant on 10th Avenue packed outdoor tables under awnings as the rain stopped and started again.

At least one restaurant wasn't taking any chances. At the trendy Half King bar on 23rd Street near the Hudson River, the door was locked and the windows were boarded. Perhaps the caution was a function of its owner: Sebastian Junger, author of "The Perfect Storm."

Throughout the day, during media briefings, Bloomberg, his sleeves rolled up and his tone stern, kept warning that this was not a time for New Yorkers to display their famous toughness and bravado.

"Most of the storm is going to take place during the night when you're asleep, or when you get up early Sunday morning," he said. "And the most important thing to do is to stay inside.... It may be fun to say, 'I walked around in a hurricane,' but it wouldn't be fun if you have to say it from your hospital bed."

Asked by a reporter whether he anticipated looting in abandoned neighborhoods, the mayor grimaced, and then responded:

"This is New York. We don't have this sort of thing."

PHOTOS: In the path of Hurricane Irene

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