The rain started to taper off, the sun began to come out of hiding and then with a sudden ferocity, dirty sea water poured into the New York coastline, sweeping up motorists who raced for safety.
Save for a few motorists and the homeless, the beachfront strip of Coney Island was deserted on Sunday morning after sweeping evacuation orders by New York authorities in preparation for Hurricane Irene.
Many residents had earlier voiced cynicism about the evacuation and the skies appeared to clear over Coney Island. But at 8:45am, the water level rose by the second, bringing sudden chaos to the quiet streets.
An ocean of dirty sea water — along with tree branches, discarded paper bags and other litter — gushed through from the beach, the site of amusement rides and the Nathan’s hot dog stand famed for its July 4 eating competitions.
Roads that appeared dry and safe seconds earlier came underwater with the few motorists on the road forced to make split second decisions on which way to move, trying to guess which streets were on higher ground, and for how long.
Several drivers who had been travelling peacefully were forced to get out and trudge into waist-deep water to push along their cars, looking feverishly for the best exit from a neighbourhood suddenly under water.
An AFP team made a quick turn off Coney Island’s Mermaid Avenue to find that the water was on the chase. The motorist put the foot on the gas and found higher land with moments to spare, the smelly sea water already seeping into the passengers’ windows.
On Coney Island, virtually everyone was off the streets except police and five homeless people who usually live on subway trains, which in an unprecedented step were closed.
Within an hour, the water levels had receded, all people appeared safe and the main evidence of the flood was a sooty trail of bottles and other debris. New Yorkers, true to form, responded largely with shrugs.
“They shouldn’t have evacuated everyone. Now some people might have thousands of dollars in damages and they weren’t around to stop it,” said Joe Perota, who was out walking his dog shortly after the storm surge.
“They need to think about the weather and not just look at satellites,” he said.
Jose Pabon, who is originally from Puerto Rico was not excited as he came downstairs from his Coney Island home and saw a still-flooded side street.
“Back in Puerto Rico, the whole city could be closed down for days,” he said.
Similar scenes, some more severe, were witnessed across the New York region as it was clobbered with its first hurricane in years. In the ritzy Hampton’s area of eastern Long Island, television footage showed waves pushing up against walls of big beachfront houses.
Authorities took extra precautions on Battery Park, on the southern tip of Manhattan next to the major institutions of the world’s financial capital.
The water rushed onto the boardwalk but it soon went down, the shadow of the Statue of Liberty visible on the horizon.
United States airlines resumed limited operations on Sunday at Washington-area airports while New York, the nation’s busiest air hub, assessed the storm’s wrath.
With skies clearing and damage from feared Irene minimal, a few arrivals descended on the capital area’s three airports — Reagan National and Dulles in Virginia and BWI in Maryland.
The biggest airlines cancelled virtually all service for the day throughout the north east and hoped to restart flights in earnest on Monday.
It could take a couple of days to get operations back to normal, aviation officials said.
More than 10 000 flights were cancelled from Friday through Monday, most at New York-area airports that handle about 6 000 flights per day and 100 million passengers a year.
Carriers heavily affected include US Airways, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines.
All three New York airports remained effectively closed on Sunday morning.
Airlines abandoned north east airports ahead of the storm to keep their planes away from hurricane-force winds and torrential rains.
Amtrak, the nation’s only long haul passenger rail service, cancelled all north east trains for Sunday. — AFP and Reuters