THE BIG PUDDLE; 16 Die as Tropical Storm Hits New York

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Byline: STEPHEN WHITE

THE Big Apple got a big ducking yesterday - and was left counting the cost as tropical storm Irene swept through.

Mercifully the one-time hurricane - nearly 500 miles across - had lost some of its power as it struck New York.

But winds of 65mph still caused chaos, flooding coastal suburbs and knocking out electricity to three million homes.

At least 16 died as America's eastern seaboard was pounded, with damage running into billions of dollars.

Up to 65million had been on high alert - the largest number of Americans ever affected by a single storm.

Thousands of flights were grounded as it lashed North Carolina, Virginia and Florida and all public transport in New York was shut down.

Millions of homes were evacuated and a nuclear reactor in Maryland was closed after being damaged by flying debris.

Last night officials were hoping that post-storm tidal surges would not flood underground power tunnels.

About a foot of water swamped roads at the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan and heavy rains and wind forced the closure of three bridges leading to the Rockaways peninsula facing the Atlantic.

DODGED

Further east on Long Island, sand barriers built to hold off the flooding and protect coastal businesses appeared to have failed.

The storm dumped up to eight inches of rain on the Washington area, but the capital appeared to have avoided major damage.

Rick Meehan, mayor of Ocean City, Maryland, said: "It looks like we dodged a missile on this one."

From the Carolinas to Maine, tens of millions of people were in the path of Irene, which howled ashore in North Carolina on Saturday, bringing torrential rain, felling trees and causing widespread disruption to power supplies.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the eight million people who live there: "The edge of the hurricane has finally got upon us."

In the city that never sleeps, Times Square was virtually deserted apart from emergency workers - and a handful of brave young revellers who went dancing and singing in the rain.

Broadway shows were cancelled and stores closed as most people heeded mayor Bloomberg's warning to stay indoors.

Earlier about 370,000 city residents were ordered to leave their homes in lowlying areas - many of them in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.

Hotel doorman Scott Baxter said: "You could see news-paper stands floating down the street." As the centre of the storm passed over Central Park at mid-morning, floodwater reached the wheel arches of stranded cars in Manhattan, and a mini tidal wave deluged several streets of Queens.

But many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief after the storm didn't come close to inflicting the kind of catastrophic damage that had been feared.

In an unprecedented move, five New York hospitals were evacuated as a precaution. The massive operation involved moving intensive care patients and premature babies still in their incubators.

Only 10 patients were kept at New York University Hospital as they were too critically ill to be moved.

Flood waters forced officials in Hoboken, just across the Hudson River, to evacuate a storm shelter. And 10 miles of steam pipes beneath New York were shut down to prevent explosions if they came in contact with cold water.

Despite officially downgrading Irene to a tropical storm, the National Hurricane Centre warned a follow-up tidal surge of up to 8ft could hit Long Island and metropolitan New York.

That could be enough to breach flood walls protecting south Manhattan.

The city's fire department rescued dozens of flood victims and the search was continuing last night for others who may be trapped. In the Broad Channel area of Queens, rescue firefighters were using inflatable dinghies to scour bungalows that were floating down the street. …