THE toll as Hurricane Irene lashed the eastern US has risen to at least eight, including an 11-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl, emergency officials said today.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the hurricane had hit the city and warned people it was too late to evacuate.
“The edge of the hurricane is finally upon us,” he told a press conference.
Bloomberg said that with mandatory evacuation orders handed to some 370,000 people in low-lying neighborhoods and public transport completely shut down, “the time for evacuations is over”.
“At this point, if you haven’t evacuated, our suggestion is you stay where you are.”
“The bottom line is the storm is now starting to hit New York City,” he said. “Nature is a lot stronger than the rest of us.”
The boy died when a tree fell on his apartment in Newport News, a city on a coastal peninsula in Virginia, while the girl died in North Carolina as her family were heading home from a beach holiday and the traffic lights failed.
Five of the fatalities were in North Carolina, where Irene made landfall early yesterday, with 140km/h winds, before heading up the eastern seaboard.
“A 15-year-old girl was killed in a car accident on her way back from the beach after vacationing in North Carolina,” emergency official Patty McQuillan said.
“The traffic light at the intersection was not working, the power was out.”
Virginia emergency officials said Hurricane Irene had claimed two lives in the state: one a man who died when a tree fell on his car in Brunswick County, the second the child in Newport News.
“There was an 11-year-old boy pinned under the tree and he was pronounced dead at the scene,” Newport News city spokeswoman Anita Walters said, adding that the boy’s mother made it out of the apartment unharmed.
North Carolina emergency management spokesman Brad Deen said one of the five victims in his state was a man who had a heart attack on Friday while nailing plywood over his windows in preparation for the hurricane.
Two people were also killed in the state in separate driving accidents, while the fifth fatality there was a man struck by a falling tree limb while outside feeding his animals.
Coroners were still to confirm the cause of death of the eighth storm-related fatality, a surfer who took to his board in treacherously high waves off the Florida coast on Friday.
“We had sent out an advisory recommending everyone check beach reports and use an abundance of caution before entering the water,” state emergency official William Booher told AFP.
The hurricane is on track to careen up the east coast late today and tomorrow, passing over or near Washington, New York and Boston, a densely populated urban corridor home to some 65 million people.
The hurricane had an enormous wingspan – 805km – and packed wind gusts of 185km/h.
British Airways, Air France, American Airlines, Continental and major Asian airlines cancelled scores of flights to and from Europe and Asia, while thousands of domestic flights fell victim to the killer storm.
The flightaware.com website, which tracks airport arrivals and departures, estimated that 8337 flights would be cancelled during the weekend, mainly US domestic trips. It warned that the figure would rise.
It said there were 871 cancellations at New York’s John F Kennedy airport, 836 at Newark airport, 385 at New York’s La Guardia airport, 271 at Baltimore-Washington airport and 257 already cancelled at Philadelphia which was to close last night.
New York area airports closed to arrivals at midday local time while many carriers decided not to risk departures.
An Air France spokesman in Paris said that the company’s flights to and from New York were not expected to resume before tomorrow.
Rail traffic across the eastern US also came to a standstill and public transport in the New York region was halted. In New York City, it was the first shutdown ever caused by a weather disaster.
Subway rail stations were roped off after the final trains left. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was unable to say when trains and buses would start again.
The last bus rides were free and no tolls were charged on New York bridges Saturday to help those evacuating low-lying areas.
The New York subway is one of the world’s biggest with 468 stations served by some 6380 cars. There are also about 5900 city buses.
The MTA has particular concerns about the 13 subway tunnels that go under the rivers that surround Manhattan.
Authorities have also said bridges will close once wind speeds go over 60 miles (96 kilometers) an hour.