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Irene closes on New York after battering East Coast

Aug 27, 2011, 8:59 p.m.
People get in a cab at Times Square in New York as rains fall before Hurricane Irene hits August 27, 2011. REUTERS/Peter Jones

By Ned Barnett

MOREHEAD CITY, North Carolina (Reuters) - Hurricane Irene closed in on New York on Saturday, shutting down the city, and millions of Americans on the East Coast hunkered down as the giant storm halted transport and caused massive power blackouts.

Before midnight, Irene, still a menacing 480-mile-wide hurricane, was enveloping major population centers in the U.S. northeast with drenching rain and driving winds, threatening dangerous floods and surging tides.

"The edge of the hurricane has finally got upon us," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the more than 8 million people who live in the United States' most populous city that includes Wall Street, a major world financial center.

He warned that tropical storm-force winds were expected to start hitting the city.

From the Carolinas to Maine, tens of millions of people were in the path of Irene which howled ashore in North Carolina at daybreak, dumping torrential rain, felling trees and knocking out power.

After moving across North Carolina with less punch than expected but still threatening, the hurricane re-emerged over inshore waters on its route northward, hugging the coast.

At least seven deaths were reported in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. Several million people were under evacuation orders on the U.S. East Coast.

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which connects Virginia's Eastern Shore with the mainland and is regarded as a modern engineering wonder, was closed because of the winds and rain.

This year has been one of the most extreme for weather in U.S. history, with $35 billion in losses so far from floods, tornadoes and heat waves.

President Barack Obama, who cut his vacation short on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard to return to the White House, was keeping a close eye on preparations for the hurricane.

New York City's normally bustling streets were eerily quiet after authorities ordered unprecedented major evacuations and shut down its airports and subways.

Commuters were left to flag down yellow taxis and livery cabs that patrolled largely deserted streets.

Irene caused transport chaos as airline, rail and transit systems in New York and other eastern cities started sweeping weekend shutdowns.

The Coast Guard closed the port of Philadelphia, while New York Harbor remained open with some restrictions.

"DANGEROUS OUT THERE"

"We're just stuck here ... "We didn't think they would shut down everything," said Rachel Karten at New York's nearly empty Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Irene left several million people without power in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware and New York prepared for possible widespread blackouts.

With winds of 8O miles per hour, Irene was a Category 1 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale.

As it moved into New York, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it was expected to remain a hurricane and weaken only after making its second landfall in New England.

Irene came ashore near North Carolina's Cape Lookout around 7:30 a.m. EDT, and then churned up the coast on a north-northeast track. By 11 p.m., the center was 70 miles south southwest of Ocean City, Maryland, and 255 miles south southwest of New York City.

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