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Northern Ireland's political foes become bad weather friends as Games delegation shelters from Irene

By Lesley-Anne Henry

A delegation of around 100 high profile Northern Ireland figures has been cooped up in New York after the city went into lockdown in preparation for Hurricane Irene.

The contingent, which included the Health Minister Edwin Poots, Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, Belfast Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile, as well as senior PSNI, Fire Service and Prison Service officials, are in New York for the World Police and Fire Games but have been confined to their hotels as the city ground to a standstill over the weekend.

"We should have been busy but because of the weather we haven't been," Mr Poots told the Belfast Telegraph from his accommodation on Lexington Avenue.

"It has messed things up, but such is life."

Although the predicted hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm it still brought torrential rain, fierce winds and even closed the subway for the first time in decades. Mr Poots, who will be travelling to Boston by train later today said: "It's one of those things. You can't do anything about the weather.

"The entire city shut down for 48 hours from Saturday,'' he added. All the shops were closed, the transport system shut at 12 noon on Saturday and Times Square was completely quiet. "We've had about five-and-a-half inches of rain over the past 24 hours and the winds peaked at about 60 or 65mph but that's nothing you wouldn't experience at Torr Head. We are from Northern Ireland and we are used to adversity."

The World Police and Fire Games, which are coming to Belfast in 2013, kicked off on Friday but weekend events were cancelled. Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin (far right) said it was a "very anxious time".

"Before the storm hit myself and my colleagues ensured that all of our contingencies were in place,'' she said.

"We purchased flashlights, water and food.

"Last night, as the storm came we provided an extra bed in our hotel rooms for a colleague who lives in Queens and whose apartment now has no electricity.

"We spent the early hours of the storm with colleagues from the PSNI, NI Prisons, NI Fire Service, and other uniformed services from USA, Canada and New Zealand.

"Despite the very trying circumstances there is a sense of camaraderie and new friendships are being formed."

The PSNI has a contingent of around 70 serving and retired officers currently in New York.

Chief Superintendent Nigel Grimshaw said it was "surreal" to see the city so quiet.

"When we arrived on Monday the temperatures were 80-plus degrees fahrenheit and there was sunshine,'' he said.

"Times Square was buzzing on Thursday and Friday but on Saturday night there were only a couple of restaurants open and it was almost totally empty. It was really weird.

"It is disappointing for the competitors but I am sure they'll do well and we'll still hang in there.

"The rain is now lessening and there is a slight glimmer of brightness."

New York hairdresser Tara Kyles, whose parents are from Northern Ireland, said her worst fears were not realised. "We braced for the worst which was supposed to happen on Sunday morning, but the storm fell apart and nothing came of it," she said. "The media definitely over-hyped the situation and made it sound like an impending apocalypse.

"But I'm glad people were over-prepared rather than the alternative."

Belfast man Chris Cairns has had to extend his Florida holiday by five days because his flight home via Newark was cancelled.

"We expected a couple of days delay but we didn't think it would be five," he said.

"We've had to hire a car again for a week.

"We're staying in a hotel for two days and are staying in a studio for three days, so it has been expensive.

"Also, my daughter who is eight, will miss her first two days of school because we are not back in time."

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