New York Taxis as Empty as Streets as Sandy Shuts City

Hurricane Sandy’s impending arrival in the most populous U.S. city has ended at least one perennial New York frustration -- getting a taxi in the rain.

Over an hour and a half this morning, Nassir Pandhair, who’s been driving a cab for 25 years, picked up just three customers and earned about $25, half what he’d normally earn in the period.

“It feels like a quiet Sunday morning,” Pandhair, 54 of Valley Stream, New York, said as he cruised up Third Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side alongside a half-dozen yellow taxis whose backseats were empty as his.

Residents bracing for the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded woke up to a more muted version of the city that never sleeps as public schools, the New York Stock Exchange and even Saks Inc.’s Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s Inc.’s Bloomingdale’s flagship outlets were shuttered.

The normally 24-hour-a-day mass transit system closed due to weather for just the second time in its 108-year history. Pedestrians were sparse and the usual Manhattan traffic jams nonexistent as thousands of evacuees camped out in shelters after evacuating low-lying areas where water had begun collecting. Winds caused the partial collapse of a crane attached to a luxury tower on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

Besting Irene

The major risk to the city’s 8 million people in five boroughs will come at high tide after 8 p.m. local time, when a storm surge is predicted to near a record 12 feet (3.7 meters), enough to flood streets, basements and, potentially, subways and car tunnels, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press briefing at the Office of Emergency Management in Brooklyn.

A 3-meter storm surge at the Battery in Manhattan might cause between $5.65 billion and $11.55 billion in damage, according to Ning Lin, professor of civil and environmental Engineering at Princeton University in New Jersey. She said any wind and rain damage aren’t included in the estimate.

Even before the tidal surge, New Yorkers were seeing flooding comparable to the worst of Hurricane Irene last year, with water covering the esplanade at Battery Park City along the Hudson River and the FDR Drive on Manhattan’s East Side, Bloomberg said.

“The greatest danger posed by Sandy is the coastal storm surge it will produce,” said Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. “It may be a good time to just stay hunkered into your home and have a sandwich out of the fridge and sit back and watch television.”

Powerless Breakfast

At the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, where Wall Streeters, politicians and media moguls greet the day over eggs and coffee, “it wasn’t much of a power breakfast today,” said Leigh Wynn, restaurant manager. By 10 a.m., the dining room’s skeleton work crew had served 30 customers, mostly hotel guests, compared with its typical 170, she said.

As Manhattanites disappeared from the streets, residents and businesspeople in Coney Island prepared for the worst as police cleared the boardwalk and beach. Half of the area could be under water after the tide comes in, said Domenic Recchia, a New York City council member who’d been surveying the storm from the boardwalk.

Frank Sciortino, co-owner of Knapp Street Pizza in Coney Island, said his gas-powered ovens will keep cranking out pies until 11 p.m. Sciortino said he didn’t take precautions against the storm, calling his preparation for Irene a ”waste of time.”

Storm Skeptic

“People have to eat,” said Sciortino, 29, whose family has owned the space since 1994. “We don’t think it’s going to be that bad of a storm. I don’t trust the weatherman. If it comes, it comes.”

Back in Manhattan, the storm began to cut residents off from much of the outside world

Expected flooding prompted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to order the closing of the Tappan Zee Bridge north of New York City as well as crossings in the city, including the Holland Tunnel and George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows bridges to New Jersey, the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel to Brooklyn -- also known as the Brooklyn-Battery -- and the Throgs Neck, Bronx-Whitestone and Henry Hudson spans.

Cuomo also doubled, to more than 2,000, the number of National Guard troops to help deal with a storm surge already about 9.5 feet high, the peak water levels seen when Irene struck in August 2011, he said.

Lights Out

As of 4 p.m., about 45,000 people were without power throughout the city’s five boroughs. About 6,500 in lower Manhattan below Wall Street will likely lose power this evening to protect the system, said Alfonso Quiroz, a spokesman for Consolidated Edison Inc., which supplies New York City and parts of Westchester County with electric power.

Business at Ray Bari Pizza in midtown Manhattan was bustling. Alejandro Vazquez, 27, had already delivered, on bike and foot, 20 pizzas by lunchtime to hungry urbanites holed up in their apartments.

“It’s very busy today,” Vazquez said while zipping up his windbreaker. “Nobody wants to go outside so everybody stays at home and orders pizza and pasta.”

It’s too early to estimate how much the storm will cost the city in worker overtime, said Chris Miller, press secretary for the municipality’s Office of Emergency Management.

While Bloomberg must close a $635 million midyear deficit in his $68.5 billion budget, created when a judge barred the city from selling 2,000 taxi medallions, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will soften the financial impact of repairing damaged infrastructure and personal property, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer said.

Keeping Watch

Repairs were not the immediate concern of Ricky Coronado, however, as he sat on the steps of his mother’s house in the Rockaways, a Queens beachfront neighborhood.

As water lapped at the tops of fire hydrants a few blocks away, Coronado, 32, said he was concerned about people seeking shelter breaking into abandoned houses.

“It’s worse than last year,” he said. “I don’t want to leave the house alone.”

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