Hurricane Irene battered New York with heavy winds and driving rain on Sunday, shutting down the U.S. financial capital and most populous city, halting mass transit and causing massive power blackouts as it churned slowly northward along the eastern seaboard.

New York City's normally bustling streets were eerily quiet after authorities ordered tens of thousands of residents to evacuate low-lying areas and shut down its subways, airports and buses. [ID:nN1E77Q042]

Those who had to travel were left trying to flag down yellow taxis that patrolled largely deserted streets.

Irene, still a menacing 480-mile (780-km)-wide hurricane, was enveloping towns and cities in the northeast, hugging the Atlantic coast and threatening floods and surging tides.

At least nine deaths were reported in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. Several million people were under evacuation orders on the U.S. East Coast.

The storm dumped up to eight inches of rain on the Washington region, but the capital appeared to have avoided major damage. Some bridges were closed but airports remained open and transit operated on a normal schedule.

We had a couple of tree branches (down) and stuff but nothing that really affected customers, Washington Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told a local NBC affiliate.

From the Carolinas to Maine, tens of millions of people were in the path of Irene, which howled ashore in North Carolina on Saturday, dumping torrential rain, felling trees and knocking out power.

The edge of the hurricane has finally got upon us, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the more than eight million people who live in New York as he warned that tropical storm-force winds would hit the city.

 

 

Times Square, often called the crossroads of the world, was sparsely populated, mostly with visitors, as Irene rolled into the city with full force.

Broadway shows were canceled, coffee was hard to come by with Starbucks stores closed and burgers and fries were in short supply as McDonald's outlets were shut.

We just came to see how few people are in Times Square and then we're going back, said Cheryl Gibson, who was vacationing in the city.

Bloomberg warned New Yorkers Irene was a life-threatening storm and urged them to stay indoors to avoid flying debris, flooding or the risk of being electrocuted by downed power lines. It is dangerous out there, he said, but added later:

New York is the greatest city in the world and we will weather this storm.

In midtown Manhattan, there was a substantial police presence on the streets but most people heeded Bloomberg's warning to stay inside.

Television reports said local airports had already recorded winds of over 60 miles per hour (96 kph) and they had not yet reached their expected full strength.

About 370,000 city residents were ordered to leave their homes in low-lying areas, many of them in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

Some were unwilling to go. Nicholas Vigliotti, 24, an auditor who lives in a high-rise building along the Brooklyn waterfront, said he saw no point. Even if there was a flood, I live on the fifth floor, he said.

STORM SURGE FEARS

Flood waters forced officials in Hoboken, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, to evacuate a storm shelter, the mayor of Hoboken, Dawn Zimmer, said on Twitter.

The Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center forecast a storm surge of up to 8 feet (2.5 meters) for Long Island and metropolitan New York. That could top the flood walls protecting the south end of Manhattan if it comes at high tide around 8 a.m. (noon GMT).

With winds of 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour), Irene was still a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale. Shortly after 5 a.m. (0900 GMT), the storm center was 10 miles (15 km) south southeast of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and 100 miles (165 km) south southwest of New York City.

On its forecast track the center of Irene will move near or over the coast of New Jersey and over Western Long Island this morning ... and move inland over southern New England by this afternoon, the hurricane center said.

Boston's public transit authority, the MBTA, said on its website it will shut down all services as of 8 a.m./noon GMT. After that time, all modes of transit will be shut down for the remainder of the day and night, it said.

Summer vacationers fled beach towns and resort islands. More than a million people left the New Jersey shore and glitzy Atlantic City casinos were dark and empty.

This year has been one of the most extreme for weather in U.S. history, with $35 billion in losses so far from floods, tornadoes and heat waves.

President Barack Obama, who cut his vacation short on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard to return to the White House, was keeping a close eye on preparations for the hurricane.

TWO MILLION WITHOUT POWER

In total more than two million utility customers were without power early Sunday due to Irene, including more than 20,000 in New York City.

Utility company Consolidated Edison warned that downtown Manhattan, including Wall Street, could face more blackouts as low-lying areas flooded.

When Irene hit the North Carolina coast on Saturday, winds howled through power lines, sheets of rain fell and streets were flooded or littered with tree branches.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Irene's path evacuated their homes, many taking refuge in official shelters.

Things can be replaced, but life can't be, said Robert Hudson, a 64-year-old military retiree, who sought refuge at a shelter in Milford High School in Delaware.

North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue said there may be a major hit to tobacco crops, poultry and livestock in her state.

Irene was the first hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since Ike pounded Texas in 2008. Emergency workers were mindful of Hurricane Katrina, which swamped New Orleans, killed up to 1,800 people and caused $80 billion in damage in 2005.