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New York empties ahead of hurricane

The normally bustling streets emptied and subways came to a stop as New York buttoned up against Hurricane Irene, which threatened to paralyse Wall Street and give the big city its worst thrashing from a storm since at least the 1980s.

City officials cautioned that if Irene stayed on track, it could bring gusts of 85 mph that could shatter skyscraper windows.

They said there was an outside chance that a storm surge in Lower Manhattan could send seawater streaming into the maze of underground vaults that hold the city's cables and pipes, knocking out power to thousands and crippling the nation's financial capital.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the first-ever mandatory evacuation in New York. More than 370,000 people were told to be out by 5pm on Saturday from low-lying areas on the fringes of the city, mostly in Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

By late on Saturday, Mr Bloomberg said the edge of Hurricane Irene had reached the city and it was no longer safe to be outside. "The time for evacuation is over. Everyone should now go inside and stay inside," he said.

All subway services were suspended because of the threat of flooding in the tunnels - the first time the nation's biggest transit system has shut down because of a natural disaster. Sandbags and tarps were placed on or around subway grates.

"Heed the warnings," Mr Bloomberg said, his shirt getting soaked as the rain fell in Coney Island. "It isn't cute to say, 'I'm tougher than any storm.' I hope this is not necessary, but it's certainly prudent."

In Times Square, shops boarded up windows, put sandbags outside entrances and the street performer known as the Naked Cowboy, who stands at the Crossroads of the World wearing only underwear and a guitar, had a life vest on.

Construction came to a standstill across the city, and workers at the World Trade Centre site dismantled a crane and secured equipment. The mayor said there would be no effect on the opening of the September 11 memorial on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Irene came ashore in North Carolina on Saturday morning, slightly weakened but still powerful, and was expected to roll up the densely populated Interstate 95 corridor. More than 8.3 million people live in New York City, and nearly 29 million in the metropolitan area.

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