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In sleepless city, streets go quiet

The looming threat of Hurricane Irene – and shuttered theaters – didn’t dissuade tourists from visiting Manhattan’s Times Square on Saturday. (Associated Press)
The looming threat of Hurricane Irene – and shuttered theaters – didn’t dissuade tourists from visiting Manhattan’s Times Square on Saturday. (Associated Press)

NEW YORK – By late Saturday, New York just wasn’t itself anymore.

City-owned garbage cans were turned on their side and shoved against buildings. Subways and buses were idle. Theaters, parks and airport departure gates were closed. Even a Starbucks on Madison Avenue didn’t open. And if you had a D battery, you could sell it at a nice profit.

As Hurricane Irene barreled toward New York it was as quiet as a Christmas morning – but more surreal.

Presented with a potential disaster that afforded some prep time, New Yorkers took full advantage of two days of warnings and unprecedented orders.

Many of the 370,000 residents living in low-lying areas did as they were told and evacuated. And, knowing the mass transit system would come to a halt starting at noon, people got where they had to go.

Throughout the day, city officials continued to emphasize the big fears: high winds that would knock out windows and topple trees, and water surges that threatened to submerge lower Manhattan and shut down Wall Street into this week.

Con Ed officials said they had already shut off certain steam pipes in the Wall Street area Saturday, and if the East River breached its banks and saltwater seeped into equipment, they would power down completely, which would affect 6,500 customers.

A spokesman for the utility said if that happened “it would be a couple of days” before the company could turn the power back on.

The New York Stock Exchange has backup generators and can run on its own, a spokesman said.

The prospect of no power and other problems raised by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had New Yorkers waiting in long lines outside grocery stores to buy supplies as varied as batteries, bread and ground beef. They were also nailing plywood to their front doors and piling sandbags on their streets.

Yvonne McKenzie recognized familiar warnings from her native Jamaica, where she experienced many hurricanes, so she fled to a Brooklyn technical college being used as an evacuation center, one of 91 set up by the city.

As she settled down on one of about 180 blue cots set up in the gymnasium, McKenzie explained that she had left her home in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood because she couldn’t get out of her mind the waterfront just down the street.

“I figured, ‘Let me escape while I can,’ ” McKenzie said. “I’m not alarmed. I’m not afraid. But I didn’t want to be flooded out.”

In other parts of Brooklyn, normally busy streets were virtually empty. Shopkeepers taped window panes. Playgrounds were deserted, and the usual sounds of a summer weekend – music drifting from open windows, children squealing, televisions blaring from bars – were gone as people closed their windows against the approaching storm.

In Times Square, normally bustling on a Saturday afternoon in advance of Broadway matinees, theatergoers were left to wander the streets in search of something to do.

At the American Eagle store on 46th Street, a line formed around the block, as tourists waited to enter one of the few non-restaurant businesses that remained open.

Sebastian Tribbie, a representative of the Ha! comedy club, had sold 200 tickets by 4 p.m. for an evening performance – about quadruple what he normally sells, he said.

“My pitch is just ‘We’re open and we have alcohol,’ ” he said, laughing.

“I mean, it’s that’s easy. There’s literally nothing else open.” He said the club’s proprietors had paid to keep performers in hotels overnight so the show could go on.

Throughout the day, during news briefings, Bloomberg, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his tone stern, kept warning New Yorkers that this was not a time for them to display their famous toughness and bravado.

“Most of the storm is going to take place during the night when you’re asleep, or when you get up early Sunday morning,” he said. “And the most important thing to do is to stay inside. … It may be fun to say, ‘I walked around in a hurricane,’ but it wouldn’t be fun if you have to say it from your hospital bed.”

Asked if he anticipated looting in abandoned neighborhoods, the mayor grimaced, then responded:

“This is New York. We don’t have this sort of thing.”

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