NEW YORK (The Blaze/AP) -- Hurricane Irene bore down on a dark and quiet New York early Sunday, bringing winds and rapidly rising seawater that lapped at sidewalks at the lower tip of Manhattan and threatened other parts of the city. The rumble of the subway system was silenced for the first time in years, the city all but shut down for the strongest tropical lashing since the 1980s.
Irene weakened after landfall over the North Carolina coast Saturday, but it was still a massive storm with sustained winds of up to 75 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.
Power was already out to hundreds of thousands of customers around the city and on New York's Long Island.
A possible 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, forecasters said. Officials' feared water lapping at Wall Street, ground zero and the luxury high-rise apartments of Battery Park City. A tornado warning was briefly issued for the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens early Sunday.
Battery Park City in lower Manhattan was virtually deserted as rain and gusty winds pummeled streets and whipped trees. Officials were bracing for a storm surge of several feet that could flood or submerge the promenade along the Hudson River.
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Resident Colin Mahoney was one of a handful of people in his building to defy the evacuation order and ride out the storm. "I'm from New England. We do storms there," Mahoney said as he walked along the promenade in the pouring rain.
But, he added, "The mayor did the right thing. He had to."
Building supervisors who stayed behind were busy preparing for possible damage.
"We unplugged the drains and we fastened anything loose or removed it," he said.
Darcy went to check the headwall across the street which would hold back any water surge, hoping it would hold back water.
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.
But taxi cabs were open for business as some residents donned rain gear and headed outside to check the weather or to head home after hotel shifts.
"I have to work. I would lose too much money," said cabbie Dwane Imame, who said he worked through the night. "There have been many people, I have been surprised. They are crazy to be out in this weather."
Some, looking to take advantage of the slicked-down streets and lack of cars, decided to have some fun, turning parts of Times Square into a giant slip 'n slide. Video via CBS:
Mayor Michael Bloomberg 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."
Late Saturday, Bloomberg said it was no longer safe to be outside.
"The time for evacuation is over. Everyone should now go inside and stay inside," he said.
Many New Yorkers took the evacuation in stride. Some planned hurricane parties - some streaked through Times Square.
"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.
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.
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 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.
It could take days for the power to be restored. The subway system, which carries 5 million passengers on an average weekend, wasn't expected to restart until Monday at the earliest.
As Irene passes by, tides are 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.