New York escapes worst as Irene passes

Tropical storm surges up northeastern US, leaving 18 dead in its wake, but officials say worst is over for New York.

    Tropical Storm Irene has weakened in its path up the northeastern US coast, after lashing New York with heavy rains and powerful winds - but sparing the city the worst of its wrath.

    The powerful storm system knocked out electricity lines and flooded parts of the city's deserted streets before being downgraded from a hurricane on Sunday.

    But it left behind a stunned east coast, killing at least 18 people, leaving millions without power and destroying buildings in North Carolina and Virginia.

    Air, rail and bus transport along the 1,200km stretch from Boston to North Carolina will on Monday offer only limited services in the aftermath of the storm.

    US President Barack Obama, who cut his holiday short to co-ordinate efforts to deal with the storm, said the "impact of Irene will be felt for some time".

    Obama gave special praise to the government officials and emergency services who were dealing with the storm, saying "your response to Irene shows how government should be responsive to people's need".

    Obama was briefed on the storm's track, its impact and response efforts during an evening conference call with senior officials including Joe Biden, the vice-president, Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, and Steven Chu, the energy secretary.

    As waves continued to pound the Connecticut shore east of America's biggest city, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, lifted an evacuation order for residents in low-lying areas of the city.

    New York's normally bustling streets had emptied out overnight and public transport had come to a halt after Bloomberg ordered the first mandatory evacuation ever in the city.

    But on Sunday he said "all in all we are in pretty good shape", adding that, while it would be a "tough commute" on Monday, there had been no long-term damage to the city's subway system.

    Napolitano, meanwhile, confirmed on Sunday that the "worst of the storm had passed" adding that the precautions taken had "dramatically decreased" the threat to lives along the eastern US.

    Al Jazeera's John Terrett, reporting from New York, said "the storm did not cause the level of damage expected in New York, but in some parts of the east coast there has been some severe damage".

    "But for the time being New York has dodged the bullet," he said.

    Capital spared

    Washington had braced for the onslaught, too, as did Philadelphia, the New Jersey shore and, further north, the Boston metropolitan area.

    Click here for Al Jazeera's live blog on Irene

    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.

    As Irene hit the New Jersey shore earlier, where it made its second landfall after North Carolina on Saturday, its wind strength diminished substantially, dropping to just 100km an hour, but it still remained a massive storm.

    Forecasters said Irene still posed a serious threat of storm surge that could raise water levels in coastal areas from Virginia to Massachusetts, with the risk of isolated tornadoes.

    Storm surge risk

    The fear was that the storm surge could affect New York's Hudson River, which would potentially flood the defences of Lower Manhattan and cause flooding in the financial district there.

    Al Jazeera's Tom Ackerman reports from NYC and Rosiland Jordan reports from Baltimore

    Officials said there was an outside chance that a storm surge 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.

    Already ocean water has streamed into streets in New York's Queens district, while streets in Brooklyn's Coney Island were also under water, the Associated Press news agency reported.

    On Wall Street, sandbags were placed around subway grates, while construction work has been halted across the city.

    The storm has already knocked out power to at least 1.8 million customers from North Carolina to New Jersey and forced the cancellation of more than 10,000 flights.

    Tens of millions of air travellers, train passengers and subway and bus riders scrambled to adjust their routines, work commutes and summer holiday plans as transport networks gradually scaled back operations.

    US officials, mindful of the much criticised slow response to Hurricane Katrina, which killed hundreds in New Orleans in 2005, have been out in full force urging residents in the path of the hurriAcane to prepare and take heed of local warnings.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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