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Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene is gone, but headaches remain: Mass transit still shaky and big cleanup lies ahead

The worst of hit-and-run Hurricane Irene comes Monday as millions of commuters face a morning disaster, blackouts stretch into a third day and the cleanup kicks into high gear.

"It will be annoying, and people will scream," Mayor Bloomberg predicted.

Subways will begin service this morning with fewer trains and longer waits. It was unclear when Metro-North and NJTransit would begin regular service. The Long Island Rail Road restores partial service Monday morning.

Buses were the first to get going Sunday, while Metro-North had a variety of problems: flooding, power failures and track bed erosion. "This is a difficult process," Metropolitan Transportation Authority boss Jay Walder said.

At the same time, utility companies scrambled to deal with widespread power failures. At its peak, Irene knocked out power to 174,000 customers in the city and Westchester County. About 131,500 remained without power Sunday night. Con Ed warned the power might not come back until midnight tomorrow as high winds hampered repair efforts

Statewide, more than 936,000 customers lost power, including 460,000 on Long Island. In New Jersey, 650,000 people were without electricity.

Many of the power failures were due to downed trees. The hurricane uprooted or split 719 trees - 336 in Queens and 219 in Brooklyn. Cops chased people out of Central Park Sunday amid fears of falling branches.

Highway officials said most roads closed because of flooding should be cleared by Monday morning.

There was flooding in Howard Beach, Queens; in Hudson River Park on the West Side; on a pair of East Side piers, and in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn

While Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it hit the city, it saved its last savage blows for Coney Island, which suffered flooding in spots.

Still, despite days of dire predictions, the city avoided the doomsday scenario of widespread blackouts, massive flooding and shattered skyscraper glass.

The hurricane was history by late morning, leaving behind a gray sky and a few final raindrops for a total of nearly 7 inches in Central Park, wrapping up the wettest August in city history.

"Whether we dodged a bullet or look up and say God smiled on us, I'm happy to report that there were no deaths due to the storm," Bloomberg said.

There were five New York State deaths, including that of a Spring Valley, Rockland County, man electrocuted while coming to the aid of a child on a flooded street with downed wires.

Another man died after an inflatable boat he was in with four friends capsized on the Croton River in Westchester Sunday night, cops said.

Suffolk County cops were investigating the drowning of a 68-year-old man who went windsurfing in Bellport Bay near East Islip Sunday afternoon. He was one at least 21 people in eight states killed by the hurricane - including a New Jersey woman who drowned in her car.

It was not clear if the death of a man found in the water at a City Island marina was weather-related.

There was at least one dramatic rescue: The FDNY grabbed 61 adults and three children after an overflowing lake in Staten Island's Willowbrook Park trapped them in 5 feet of water. No one was hurt as 50 firefighters in boats safely removed the residents, said FDNY spokesman Paul Iannizzotto.

Most New Yorkers were grateful the city's closest brush with a hurricane since the Reagan administration was more disruption than disaster. "We were really blessed," said Eddie Acosta, 65, of Red Hook, Brooklyn, who got 2 feet of water from his basement.

The 370,000 people evacuated from low-lying flood zones in the five boroughs were cleared to return home Sunday at 3 p.m.

For a second straight day, the typically tourist-packed streets of Manhattan were largely empty.

Broadway shows were shuttered - they reopen Monday night - and most stores in Times Square were closed, including a Starbucks on 43rd St., where a pair of British tourists tapped into the free Wi-Fi from outside.

"We're emailing," said Gail Carey, 46, of Manchester, leaning against the window. "We've left the kids at home."

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