MIAMI — Tropical Storm Irene unleashed furious wind and rain on New York on Sunday and sent seawater surging into the Manhattan streets. But the city appeared to escape the worst fears of urban disaster — vast power outages, hurricane-shattered skyscraper windows and severe flooding.
Across the East Coast, there was a collective sigh of relief. Cleanup crews began clearing roads and restoring electricity to some of the millions of people without power. Early damage estimates were in the billions of dollars. At least 18 people died in the storm.
In Manhattan, a foot of water rushed over the wall of a marina in front of the New York Mercantile Exchange, where gold and oil are traded, and floodwater lapped at the wheel wells of yellow cabs. As the storm marched into New England, though, authorities in its wake cautiously expressed relief.
“All in all, we are in pretty good shape,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. He lifted the city’s evacuation orders for 370,000 people effective later Sunday afternoon. There was no immediate indication when New York might start its subways again, but the New York Stock Exchange was ready to open for trading Monday.
New York City’s biggest power company, Consolidated Edison, said it was optimistic it would not have to cut electricity to save its equipment. The Sept. 11 museum, a centerpiece of the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site, said on Twitter that none of its memorial trees were lost.
And Irene made landfall as a tropical storm with 65 mph winds, not the 100-mph hurricane that had churned up the East Coast and dumped a foot of water or more on less populated areas in the South.
“Just another storm,” said Scott Beller, who was at a Lowe’s store in the Long Island hamlet of Centereach, looking for a generator because his power was out.
Irene weakened to winds of 50 mph as it neared northern New England, well below the 74 mph dividing line between a hurricane and tropical storm. The system was still massive and powerful, forming a figure six that covered the Northeast. It was moving twice as fast as the day before.
The storm left 4 million homes and businesses without power. Insured damage from Irene will range between $2 billion and $3 billion, and the total losses will likely be about $7 billion, according to preliminary estimates by Kinetic Analysis Corp., a consulting firm. Both figures are less than feared and will likely have little impact on the nation’s $14 trillion economy.
Irene unloaded more than a foot of water on North Carolina and spun off tornadoes in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.
And even after the storm passes in the Northeast, the danger will persist. Rivers could crest after the skies the clear, and the ground in most of the region is saturated from a summer of persistent rain. In Rhode Island, thick with bays, inlets and coastline, authorities were worried about coastal flooding at Sunday evening’s high tide.
In upstate New York, rising waters at a dam on a creek sounded sirens and officials urged residents to seek higher ground. They did not believe the dam was in danger of imminent failure.
But from North Carolina to New Jersey, the storm appeared to have fallen well short of the doomsday predictions. Across the Eastern Seaboard, at least 2.3 million people were given orders to evacuate, though it was not clear how many obeyed them.
Max Mayfield, former director of the National Hurricane Center, said the storm wasn’t just a lot of hype with little fury. He praised authorities, from meteorologists to emergency managers at all levels, for taking the threat seriously.
“They knew they had to get people out early,” Mayfield said. “I think absolutely lives were saved.”
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.”
Under its first hurricane warning in a quarter-century, the nation’s largest city had taken extensive precautions. There were sandbags on Wall Street, tarps over subway grates and plywood on storefront windows. The subway stopped rolling. Broadway and baseball were canceled.
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. Part of the Holland Tunnel was closed.
A storm surge of at least 3 1/2 feet was recorded in New York Harbor, and water pressed into Manhattan from three sides — the harbor, the Hudson River and the East River.
“You could see newspaper stands floating down the street,” said Scott Baxter, a hotel doorman in the SoHo neighborhood.
New York firefighters made dozens of water rescues, including three babies, and said they were searching bungalows that had floated down the street in parts of Queens. The wind and rain were expected to diminish by afternoon.
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.
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. 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.
In North Carolina, where at least five people were killed and TV footage showed downed trees and power lines, Gov. Beverly Perdue said 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.
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.
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 raked the Caribbean last week and made its first landfall Saturday near Cape Lookout, N.C., at the southern end of the Outer Banks.
Of the 15 deaths, at least 10 were caused by falling trees or car crashes into trees. The victims included five in North Carolina, four in Virginia, two in rough surf in Florida, and one each in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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.
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.”
At the East Coast cleans up, it can’t afford to get too comfortable. Off the coast of Africa is a batch of clouds that computer models say will probably threaten the East Coast 10 days from now, Mayfield said. The hurricane center gave it a 40 percent chance of becoming a named storm over the next two days.
“Folks on the East Coast are going to get very nervous again,” Mayfield said.