NEW YORK — Waterlogged and silent, New York awaited the worst of Hurricane Irene as an unsettled dawn broke over the city Sunday. Seawater cascaded toward Wall Street and the labyrinth of cables and pipes beneath it, threatening the nerve center of global finance.
The storm pushed a 3 1/2-foot surge of water into New York Harbor, and forecasters said the peak could be twice as tall later in the morning.
Irene barely maintained hurricane strength, delivering winds of 75 mph, just above the dividing line for a tropical storm. But it was massive and powerful, forming a figure six that covered the Northeast. It sped up and was moving at 25 mph, twice as fast as the day before.
The hurricane had already unloaded more than a foot of water on North Carolina, spun off tornadoes in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, and left 3 million homes and businesses without power. Nine people were killed.
With steady, heavy rain falling in the nation’s largest city, there was nothing left to do but wait. There were sandbags on Wall Street, tarps over subway grates and plywood on windows — at least ones low enough to reach. The subway stopped rolling. Broadway and baseball were canceled.
And 370,000 people had been ordered to move to safer ground, although they appeared in great numbers to have stayed put.
“It’s nasty out there and wet,” Cindy Darcy said from a 36-floor building facing the harbor. “We unplugged the drains, and we fastened anything loose or removed it.” She was up early making bagels for the nine workers and 24 inhabitants who stayed in the building, which is in the evacuation zone.
John F. Kennedy International Airport recorded a tropical storm-force wind gust of 58 mph. Kennedy, where on a normal day tens of thousands of passengers would be arriving from points around the world, was quiet. So were LaGuardia and Newark airports. So was Grand Central Terminal, where the great hall was cleared out entirely.
“The time for evacuation is over,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Saturday. “Everyone should now go inside and stay inside.”
As the storm’s outer bands reached New York on Saturday night, two kayakers capsized and had to be rescued off Staten Island. They received summonses and a dressing down from Bloomberg, who said at a press conference that they had recklessly put rescuers’ lives at risk.
The National Hurricane Center said the center of the huge storm reached land near Little Egg Inlet, N.J., at 5:35 a.m. The eye previously reached land Saturday in North Carolina before returning to the Atlantic, tracing the East Coast shoreline.
In New York, water began to lap over a sea wall along the East River, washing onto a sidewalk and toward the streets. A storm surge of 4 to 8 feet was expected to rush into the harbor just before the eye crossed land, National Weather Service meteorologist Ashley Sears said. Wind and rain were expected to diminish by afternoon, but if the storm surge deluges Lower Manhattan, the water could linger for hours or even a day.
Among the greatest worries was flooding in lower Manhattan, where the East and Hudson rivers converge with the harbor. That includes Wall Street, and while the New York Stock Exchange can run on generator power, it was unclear how many traders would be show up for work Monday.
At 75 mph, the storm was a Category 1, the least threatening on a 1-to-5 scale. It was as strong was 100 mph Friday.
The total extent of damage was unclear, but officials and in parts of the storm zone were relieved to find their communities with relatively minor problems. Forecasters said the storm remained capable of causing ruinous flooding with a combination of storm surge, high tides and 6 to 12 inches of rain.
“Everything is still in effect,” National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. “The last thing people should do is go outside. They need to get inside and stay in a safe place until this thing is over.”
Irene caused flooding from North Carolina to Delaware, both from the 7-foot waves it pushed into the coast and from heavy rain. Eastern North Carolina got 10 to 14 inches of rain. Virginia’s Hampton Roads area was drenched with at least 9 inches, 16 in some spots.
More than 1 million homes and businesses lost power in Virginia alone, where three people were killed by falling trees and about 100 roads were closed. Emergency crews around the region prepared to head out at daybreak to assess the damage, though with some roads impassable and rivers still rising, it could take days.
Some held out optimism that their communities had suffered less damage than they had feared.
“I think it’s a little strong to say we dodged a bullet. However, it certainly could have turned out worse for the Hampton Roads area,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Montefusco.
In Virginia Beach, the city posted on Twitter late Saturday that initial reports were promising, with the resort area suffering minimal damage. Ocean City, Md., Mayor Rick Meehan posted wind readings and reported: “Scattered power outages. No reports of major damage!”
Charlie Koetzle was up at 4 a.m. on Ocean City’s boardwalk. Asked about damage, he mentioned a sign that blew down.
“The beach is still here, and there is lots of it,” he said. “I don’t think it was as bad as they said it was going to be.”
In North Carolina, where at least two people were killed, Gov. Beverly Perdue said Irene inflicted significant damage along the North Carolina coast and some areas were unreachable.
“Folks are cut off in parts of North Carolina, and obviously we’re not going to get anybody to do an assessment until it’s safe,” she said.
Television coverage showed evidence of damage across eastern North Carolina with downed trees and toppled power lines.
A falling tree also killed one person in Maryland. A surfer and another beachgoer in Florida were killed in heavy waves caused by the storm.
The storm arrived in Washington just days after an earthquake damaged some of the capital’s most famous structures, including the Washington Monument. Irene could test Washington’s ability to protect its national treasures and its poor.
Near the epicenter of the quake, in Mineral, Va., trees were down, but the power stayed on.
“I was telling people, ‘All I can say is we all better go to church on Sunday,'” Mayor Pam Harlowe said. “But unfortunately a bunch of them are closed.”
A nuclear reactor at Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs went offline automatically when a large piece of aluminum siding blew off and hit the facility’s main transformer late Saturday night. An “unusual event” was declared, the lowest of four emergency classifications by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but Constellation Energy Nuclear Group spokesman Mark Sullivan said the facility and all employees were safe.
Near Callway, Md., about 30 families were warned that a dam could spill over, causing significant flooding, and that they should either leave their homes or stay upstairs. St. Mary’s County spokeswoman Sue Sabo said the dam was not in danger of breaching.
Irene made its first landfall just after first light near Cape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks, the ribbon of land that bows out into the Atlantic Ocean. Shorefront hotels and houses were lashed with waves, two piers were destroyed and at least one hospital was forced to run on generator power.
Across the Eastern Seaboard, at least 2.3 million people were under orders to move to somewhere safer.
Annette Burton, 72, was asked to leave her Chester, Pa., neighborhood because of danger of rising water from a nearby creek. She said she planned to remain in the row house along with her daughter and adult grandson. She kept an eye on the park across the street, which floods during heavy rains.
“I’m not a fool. If it starts coming up from the park, I’m leaving,” she said. “It’s the wind I’m more concerned about than anything.”
Irene was the first hurricane to make landfall in the continental United States since 2008, and came almost six years to the day after Katrina ravaged New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. Experts said that probably no other hurricane in American history had threatened as many people.
Airlines said 9,000 flights were canceled, including 3,000 on Saturday. The number of passengers affected could easily be millions because so many flights make connections on the East Coast.