New Englanders hunkered down, hopeful as Irene downgraded

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 28, 2011 11:38 AM
New Englanders hunkered down, hopeful as Irene downgraded

By Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Toni Clarke

BOSTON (Reuters) - In New England, residents and officials who went to bed on Saturday night hunkered down in dread of Hurricane Irene woke up on Sunday with relief that the giant storm had been downgraded to a tropical storm.

After days of preparation and with the brunt of the storm still hours away, many were taking comfort that the storm is packing less punch than expected as it slowly churns north.

"It may be a mitigated event," said Lt. Col Denis Riel, a spokesman for the Rhode Island National Guard, adding: "Forecasts for rain have been cut and we are clearly postured to weather this well."

But state and local officials across New England were cautioning it is too soon to call an all clear since Irene can still leave plenty of destruction while moving through.

The Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irene's winds dropped to 65 miles per hour (100 km per hour) on Sunday morning as it pummeled Long Island and metropolitan New York.

Forecasters said Irene still posed a serious threat of storm surge that could raise water levels by as much as 4 to 8 feet in coastal areas from Virginia to Massachusetts. Isolated tornadoes in New York and inland areas were also possible.

In New England, strong winds have knocked down power lines leaving some 100,000 people in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire without electricity, officials said. Crews were being dispatched but had to work cautiously in the high winds.

"The worst of this storm has not reached us yet and it is still important to exercise extreme caution," said Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who on Saturday said he planned to do what he was urging everyone else to do -- stay off the roads and indoors.

Few people were moving around on Sunday morning.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority suspended service from 8 am on Sunday, running only through the early morning so medical personnel could get to their jobs. Amtrak suspended all rail service in the northeast on Sunday.

"We've been telling staff that when they come in they may have to stay beyond the end of their shift, or overnight," Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency management at Massachusetts General Hospital said.

"We have sleeping quarters set up and last night a number of staff spent the night, and others will tonight, either because they have no way to get home since the transportation system has shut down, or because they don't feel safe on the roads," he added.

Boston's Logan International Airport was open for business. But all but two airlines have canceled all flights, airport spokesman Phil Orlandella said.

A handful of taxicabs cruised Boston's streets but had few passengers as the Massachusetts capital with more than 600,000 residents looked like a ghost town.

Local restaurants which normally do brisk business for brunch on Sunday were shut.

"I'm the only one here and I'm just here to answer the phone and say we are closed," said Mario Detina at Anthony's Pier 4, a Boston seafood restaurant.

Still, as grey skies lifted a little, some people began venturing out.

"The biggest challenge will be keeping people safe and away from our 21 beach communities," Rhode Island National Guard spokesman Riel said, saying local police had set up barricades.

A spokesman for the Coast Guard said on Sunday morning that no mariners called for help overnight.

"Our ships are all still in the harbor and we haven't had to go out," Petty Officer Richard Simpson said.

(Reporting by Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Toni Clarke. Editing by Peter Bohan)