With the worst of tropical storm Irene having passed New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is lifting the mandatory evacuation order for low-lying parts of the city, which had affected about 370,000 people.
The end to the evacuation was to occur at 3 p.m. Sunday, although New Yorkers already had started to return home and some had never left.
“The good news is the worst is over and we will soon move to restore-and-return mode," Bloomberg said at a press conference Sunday. “All in all, we are in pretty good shape because of the exhaustive steps we took to prepare for whatever came our way.” The fact that Irene – downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm – packed less punch than it might have probably helped too.
But things won’t be back to normal until power is returned for the thousands who lost electrical service and until the city’s subway and bus system is fully operating – which is unlikely to be by Monday when most New Yorkers head back to work.
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"I think it's fair to say you're going to have a tough commute in the morning," Bloomberg acknowledged. "But, you know, we have tough commutes all the time."
Other aspects of life in the Big Apple will remain restricted as well. Central Park is closed because of the risk from falling limbs and trees. Flooding may impact the city’s power system, much of which is underground.
In the wake of Irene’s downgraded status and limited impact, some New Yorkers are wondering why such strict orders were issued. On Saturday night, more than 9,000 people under evacuation orders stayed in 81 emergency shelters around the city.
Such critics should "look in the mirror and be glad they're alive today,” says Bloomberg.
"Maybe it was just luck, but the bottom line is we would make the same decisions again, without hesitation," he said Sunday.
A similar point was made by Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), when he was asked Sunday about mandatory evacuations in East Coast states (which are ordered by state and local officials, not federal agencies).
When the probability of major danger rises to 20-25 percent, he said, the order to evacuate typically is made – which means that in most cases, injury and loss of life probably would not have occurred anyway.
Better safe than sorry is the bottom line, officials say.
As Irene continued to track NNE over New England, 15 deaths so far have been attributed to the storm.