It is the first hurricane to hit the New York for decades and despite winds dropping to around 100kph it also packed lightning, tornados and torrential rainfall.
This morning New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said residents who had been ordered out of their homes in low-lying areas will be allowed to return Sunday afternoon.
As Irene had approached the New Jersey shore, its wind strength diminished substantially, dropping to 75 km/h in some areas, but still carrying sustained winds of 104 km/h.
New York city resembled a ghost town after 370,000 people were told to evacuate flood-prone areas, including near Wall St and at Coney Island, and mass transport was shut down.
Subway trains, buses and the Staten Island ferry all closed yesterday as did all nearby airports, paralysing the nation’s biggest city.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a press conference that running from the storm was no longer possible. “At this point, if you haven’t evacuated, our suggestion is you stay where you are,” he said. “Nature is a lot stronger than the rest of us.”
By last night at least 14 people had died – in car accidents, by heart attack and by falling trees – in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. The youngest victim, an 11-year-old boy, died when a tree crashed through his apartment building in Newport News, Virginia.
The toll rose from eight overnight with new fatalities including men hit by falling trees in North Carolina and Virginia, a woman in Maryland struck by a falling chimney, as well as the victim in New Jersey.
As it tracked up the coast, Irene knocked out power supplies to well over four million people, triggered the cancellation of more than 9000 flights, and forced nearly two million people to evacuate, half of them in New Jersey.
Officials in New York said the biggest danger was from flooding caused not just by the rainfall, but a surge of wind-driven seawater pushing up from the Atlantic, especially at high tide. The hurricane has an enormous wingspan of 805km and was last night creating storm surge waves a metre high in New York harbour.
City areas at risk of being swamped included parts of the financial district in Manhattan and low-lying beach resorts in Brooklyn and Queens and on nearby Long Island. Boat owners scrambled to get their craft ashore.
The storm hit Washington just days after an earthquake damaged some of the capital’s most famous structures, including the Washington Monument.
Some 65 million people live in the urban corridor from Washington north to Boston, and experts have said the damage could cost anything up to US$12 billion to restore.
The US military said up to 101,000 National Guard soldiers were available. That is nice but they might be more needed in Afghanistan.