Hurricane Irene bore down on a dark and quiet New York early Sunday, bringing winds, rapidly rising seawater and a tornado warning to parts of the city.
Just before 4 a.m. ET, the National Weather Service warned that tornadoes were a possibility in parts of greater New York City. MSNBC TV advised residents of Brooklyn and Queens in particular to head the warning.
There had been tornado watches in effect until 5 a.m. Sunday for the New York City area, Long Island and New Jersey. The National Weather Service also issued a flood warning until noon on Sunday for the New York City area.
Forecasters said Irene will likely make landfall on Long Island as a Category 1 storm around 9 a.m.
Irene weakened after landfall over the North Carolina coast Saturday, but it was still a massive storm with sustained winds of up to 80 mph as it approached Manhattan. Even worse, Irene's fury could coincide with a tide that's higher than normal. Water levels were expected to rise as much as 8 feet.
Forecasters said there was a chance a storm surge on the fringes of Lower Manhattan could send seawater streaming into the maze of underground vaults that hold the city's cables and pipes, knocking out power to thousands and crippling the nation's financial capital. Officials' worst fear was water lapping at Wall Street, ground zero and the luxury high-rise apartments of Battery Park City.
In Times Square, shops boarded up windows and sandbags were stacked outside of stores. Construction at the World Trade Center site came to a standstill.
At a 10:30 p.m. press conference, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg advised people to stay inside and make preparations. Those in evacuation areas who hadn't yet left should probably stay there now due the darkness and growing storm, he added.
"No matter how tempting it is to say 'I was outside during the storm' ... stay inside," he said. "We'd like to get through this with as minimal damage to human beings as possible, and after that property, but it's human lives we are really worried about."
The mayor advised New Yorkers to stay away from windows and exercise good judgment. As an example, Bloomberg noted the rescue of two kayakers off of Staten Island by the NYPD earlier in the day. While the kayakers managed to stay afloat using their life preservers for a half hour and were later pulled onto a boat, Bloomberg cautioned for others not to make the same mistake.
"This was clearly one of those reckless acts that also diverts badly needed NYPD resources," he said.
The center of the storm was supposed to pass east of Manhattan about midmorning. The wind and rain wasn't to taper off until Sunday afternoon.
While Bloomberg had ordered more than 370,000 people out of low-lying areas, mostly in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, only 8,700 people checked-in to shelters and an untold number defied the order.
"Oh, forget Bloomberg. We ain't going anywhere," 60-year-old Evelyn Burrus said at a large public housing complex in Brooklyn. "Go to some shelter with a bunch of strangers and bedbugs? No way."
Many New Yorkers took the evacuation in stride. Some planned hurricane parties.
"We already have the wine and beer, and now we're getting the vodka," said Martin Murphy, a video artist who was shopping at a liquor store near Central Park with his girlfriend.
"If it lasts, we have dozens of movies ready, and we'll play charades and we're going to make cards that say, 'We survived Irene,'" he said.
Even some who followed the advice to evacuate found themselves in a fix. I n nearby Hoboken, N.J., residents who had set-up in a city shelter were forced to evacuate to a second shelter at 11 p.m.
HobokenPatch.com reporter Claire Moses was on a bus full residents who had been holed up at a shelter set up at the Wallace Elementary School.
As the night wore on, city officials became concerned that the facility would not be safe from flooding, and decided to relocate the group to the Izod Center, a large sports arena in nearby Secaucus.
About 50 evacuees were loaded onto buses and were driving through the storm to the larger shelter when Moses spoke to msnbc.com. "It is orderly," she said. "Things are going smoothly and people are calm."
Earlier, the city had ordered all city residents living in first-floor apartments to evacuate, and recommended that other residents leave town.
"Hoboken faces worst case scenario," Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said via her Twitter account. "Flooding has begun. Moving Wallace shelter residents to state shelter in East Rutherford."
Public transport shuttered
All subway, bus and commuter rail service was shuttered so officials could get equipment safely away from flooding, downed trees or other damage. It was the first time the nation's biggest transit system has shut down because of a natural disaster.
Boilers and elevators also were shut down in public housing in evacuation areas to encourage tenants to leave and to prevent people from getting stuck in elevators if the power went out.
Some hotels also shut off their elevators and air conditioners. Others had generators ready to go.
At a shelter in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, public housing residents arrived with garbage bags filled with clothing; others pushed carts loaded with their belongings.
Tenants said management got them to leave by telling them the water and power would be shut off.
"For us, it's him," said Victor Valderrama, pointing to his 3-year-old son. "I didn't want to take a chance with my son."
Con Edison brought in hundreds of extra utility workers from around the country. While the foot of Manhattan is protected by a seawall and a network of pumps, Con Ed vice president John Mucci said the utility stood ready to turn off the power to about 17,000 people in the event of severe flooding.
Mucci said it could take up to three days to restore the power if the cables became drenched with saltwater, which can be particularly damaging. The subway system, which carries 5 million passengers on an average weekend, wasn't expected to restart until Monday at the earliest.
The New York Stock Exchange has backup generators and can run on its own, a spokesman said.
Con Ed also shut down about 10 miles of steam pipes underneath the city to prevent explosions if they came in contact with cold water. The shutdown affected 50 commercial and residential customers around the city who use the pipes for heat, hot water and air conditioning.
As Irene passes by, tides are astronomically higher than usual. The phenomenon adds about a half a foot to high tides, said Stephen Gill, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The storm surge was likely to be as much as 4 to 8 feet.
More than 8.3 million people live in New York City, and nearly 29 million in the metropolitan area.
A hurricane warning was issued for the city for the first time since Gloria in September 1985. That storm blew ashore on Long Island with winds of 85 mph and caused millions of dollars in damage, along with one death in New York.
City police rescued two kayakers who capsized in the surf off Staten Island. They were found with their life jackets on, bobbing in the roiling water.
The area's three major airports — LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark Liberty — were closed. With the subways closed, many were left to hail taxis. To encourage cab-sharing and speed the evacuation, passengers were charged not by the mile but by how many different fare "zones" their trip crossed.
Dozens of buses arrived at the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league ballpark in Coney Island to help residents get out. Nursing homes and hospitals were emptied.
At a shelter set up at a high school in the Long Island town of Brentwood, Alexander Ho calmly ate a sandwich in the cafeteria. Ho left his first-floor apartment in East Islip, even though it is several blocks from the water, just outside the mandatory evacuation zone.
"Objects outside can be projected as missiles," he said. "I figured my apartment didn't seem as safe as I thought, as every room has a window."