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Queens Chronicle

Weakened Irene still pops Queens

One city resident killed, record numbers left without power

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Posted: Thursday, September 1, 2011 12:00 pm | Updated: 3:25 pm, Thu Sep 8, 2011.

“We want to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” said Mayor Bloomberg last Friday as Hurricane Irene bore down on New York City as a Category 1 hurricane.

The storm would kill more than 30 people on the East Coast, including 68-year-old Jose Sierra of the Bronx, and caused damage in the billions of dollars.

But the mayor mostly got his wish, as Irene came ashore Sunday as a tropical storm that knocked out trees and power lines, disrupted transportation and flooded homes and coastal areas, but left the city standing tall.

“We have a big cleanup job ahead of us, there’s no question about that,” Bloomberg said Monday. “And although our city did miss the worst of Irene, many of our neighbors upstate weren’t as fortunate. They’ve experienced serious flooding and our hearts go out to them.”

David Stark, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service on Long Island, said the eye of the storm hit New York City dead on at 9 a.m. on Sunday, dropping 5.36 inches of rain on LaGuardia Airport, 5.02 at Kennedy International Airport, and 4.1 in Howard Beach.

Authorities said Sierra drowned at the City Island Marina while checking on his boat. But Stark said things easily could have been worse for the city.

A lot worse.

“Instead of hitting the city with the intensity of a Category 1 hurricane with winds of at least 75 miles per hour, it had weakened to a tropical storm with a maximum of 65,” Stark said.

He said the storm was weakened by drier air it took in as it approached the United States, and by water temperatures that became cooler and less suitable for a powerful storm as it moved north in the Atlantic Ocean.

It passed over the city at high tide in a new moon phase, the worst possible timing even for a weakened storm.

“At 8:24 a.m. the storm surge at the Battery was 9.5 feet, the sixth-highest ever recorded there,” Stark said.

In anticipation of the storm, the city and state shut down public transportation and the city issued the first mandatory evacuation order in its history for flood-prone coastal areas.

Central and southwestern Queens appeared to ride out the storm better than the coastal areas.

Kaitlin Moore, spokeswoman for Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), said their office was getting calls for things like flooding and trees hitting houses.

“But it was nothing like the tornado that came through here last year,” she said of the September 2010 twister. She noted that things like recently installed catch basins helped alleviate some of the flooding.

Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills), said she has identified numerous downed trees for 311 and the Parks Department.

Citywide damage estimates were unavailable from the Office of Emergency Management as of Tuesday. Moore said unless damage to a house was caused by a city-owned tree, a property owner’s best option would be to contact his or her homeowners insurance carrier.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall’s office said about 7,800 Queens customers remained without power as of Tuesday afternoon, but that 31,000 had been restored and the rest were expected to be back by Wednesday.

Con Edison spokesman Alfonso Quiroz said it had a record 188,000 customers out at the height of the storm, topping the record of 173,000 set in a nor’easter last year.

“And Queens got hit very, very severely,” Quiroz said. “The secret lies in being prepared.”

He said the utility had 1,700 crews and equipment waiting out the storm on Sunday in secure areas, ready to roll out as soon as it was safe to do so.

It also had 800 crews from as far away as Canada, Kansas, Texas, Illinois and Colorado, along with contracted tree trimmers and damage assessors.

He said all but a few isolated cases in the five boroughs and Westchester were expected to be back by Wednesday.

Quiroz said Con Ed never did have to implement a doomsday shutoff, which would have eliminated power in regions in order to save the equipment from damage to hasten power restoration.

At the MTA, spokeswoman Deidre Parker said Tuesday that subway service was largely restored by Monday night, and that just a few bus lines could experience some delays.

Bloomberg and Marshall also are asking residents to come to the New York Blood Center, which lost 2,000 units of blood to power outages.

Blood Center spokeswoman Christine Dingfelder said the loss comes when donations already are traditionally low.

“With the Labor Day weekend approaching, people are away,” she said. “And the holiday weekend traditionally can have a lot of traumas from things like car accidents.”

Federal, state and city officials have come under some criticism for overreacting to a storm that wound up not packing as big a punch as advertised.

But Stark of the National Weather Service said preparation was exactly what city officials should have done.

“You have to take a hurricane seriously,” he said. “The damage was still widespread, and the coastal infiltration and the downed trees could have been a lot worse. It may have been a low category storm but it still had an impact.”

He said a stronger storm would have caused much more damage because of heavy rains in the area during the previous two weeks.

“You have stronger winds for several hours with trees that are in already saturated ground and you have problems,” he said.

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