The edge of Hurricane Irene hit New York late Saturday, bringing torrential rain, freshening winds and fears of widespread flooding after killing at least eight people in its run up the US east coast.
The first hurricane to hit the Big Apple in a generation swept in overnight, accompanied by lightening, reports of tornados and deafening rainfall.
The city was a ghost town after 370,000 people were told to evacuate flood-prone areas, including near Wall Street and at Coney Island. Subway trains, buses and the famous Staten Island ferry were all shut down Saturday.
“The edge of the hurricane is finally upon us,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a press conference, adding that “the time for evacuations is over.”
“At this point, if you haven’t evacuated, our suggestion is you stay where you are,” he said. “Nature is a lot stronger than the rest of us.”
Packing winds of up to 85 miles (140 kilometers) an hour, Irene was a deadly category one storm when it made landfall at 8:00 am (1200 GMT) Saturday at Cape Lookout, North Carolina, near a chain of barrier islands.
At least eight people, including an 11-year-old boy struck by a falling tree, died in storm-related incidents along the eastern seaboard.
Irene knocked out power supplies for well over a million people, triggered the cancellation of more than 8,000 flights, and forced nearly two million people to evacuate, half of them in New Jersey.
The eye of the storm was expected to reach New York by around midday (1600 GMT) Sunday.
Officials said the biggest danger was from flooding caused not just by tropical rainfall but a surge of wind-driven seawater pushing up from the Atlantic, especially at high tide early Sunday.
City areas at risk of being swamped included parts of the financial district in Manhattan and low-lying beach resorts in Brooklyn and Queens and on nearby Long Island. Boat owners scrambled to get their craft ashore and officials across New Jersey and New York pleaded with residents to keep off beaches.
Officials say Manhattan’s skyscrapers are not at risk of serious damage, but warn that power outages might strand residents without light, water or elevators.
The disruption took on an international character after the area’s three big airports − John F. Kennedy International Airport, LaGuardia and Newark − were ordered to stop all flights at 10:00pm (0200 GMT).
The flightaware.com website, which tracks airport arrivals and departures, estimated that 8,337 flights would be cancelled during the weekend, mainly US domestic trips. It warned that the figure would rise.
President Barack Obama, who cut short his summer vacation, visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s operations center in Washington, where he said the east coast was in for a “long 72 hours.”
Some 65 million people live in the urban corridor from Washington north to Boston, and experts have said the damage could cost anything up to $12 billion to restore.
“This is going to be a very serious storm, no matter what the track is, no matter how much it weakens. This is a life threatening storm to people here,” Bloomberg said.
Irene’s approach stirred painful memories of Hurricane Katrina, which smashed into the southern Gulf Coast in 2005, stranding thousands of people in New Orleans and overwhelming poorly prepared local and federal authorities.
Hurricanes are rare in the northeastern United States − the last major hurricane to hit New York was Gloria in 1985 − but this time authorities say they are ready.
The US military said up to 101,000 National Guard soldiers were available if needed and designated military bases in three states as staging areas.