Streets empty as Hurricane Irene batters New York

Violent winds, heavy rain sweep through empty streets of Financial District; evacuations ordered by mayor Bloomberg; National Weather Service cancels flash flood watches in North Carolina.

taxi speeds by on 42nd Street at Times Square in New York 31 (photo credit: REUTERS/Peter Jones)
taxi speeds by on 42nd Street at Times Square in New York 31
(photo credit: REUTERS/Peter Jones)
BATTERY PARK, NEW YORK – Lower Manhattan was almost entirely devoid of people early Sunday morning as the much-anticipated Hurricane Irene battered the city from the south.
Violent winds and heavy rain swept through the empty streets of the Financial District which had been evacuated by order of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg together with other low-lying parts of the city because of the risk of flooding.
Bloomberg evacuates 300,000 New Yorkers before storm
East Coast Jewish communities brace for Hurricane Irene
As of late Saturday night, Hurricane Irene was heading north at a rate of 16 mph (25.75 kph) from North Carolina toward Virginia, exhibiting winds between 39 mph (63 kph) and 80 mph  (129 kph), a NBC affiliate station in North Carolina reported.
The National Weather Service canceled flash flood watches in North Carolina counties at 8:19 pm EST, according to the report.
In New York, not a soul could be seen on Wall Street, where the American flag that usually drapes the stock exchange was taken down because of the strong gusts of wind. 
Brian Thomas and a friend were one of the few people walking around the area in the downpour.
“We just came back from a hurricane dinner party with friends,” said Thomas as he jumped into a cab taking him to higher ground in Chelsea. “It was a lot of fun. We were watching the news and laughing at it because so much of it is ridiculous.”
Hurricane Irene on Saturday charged up the East Coast punishing parts of North Carolina, Virginia and Delaware with torrential rain and strong winds and leaving at least six people dead.
Rabbi Israel Zoberman of Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach was at home on Saturday afternoon bracing for the arrival of the category 1 storm projected to pass within a few dozen miles of the city.
“I must tell you the sense of hopelessness you have is an amazing feeling,” he said over the phone from the coastal town. “If you are on the oceanfront or other parts of the city you cannot walk. The wind will knock you down. The boardwalk is in danger from the waters of the ocean that have penetrated quite far out.”
The Reform rabbi said members of the Virginia Beach’s Jewish community were safe indoors and that so far there little damage had been wrought by the storm.
“We’ve had some floods in the area and we lost power early in the day for a short time but there are a lot of people without power in the state,” Zoberman said.
Airline, rail and transit systems in New York and other eastern cities initiated sweeping weekend shutdowns and slowdowns on Saturday as Hurricane Irene bore down on the region.
Tens of millions of air travelers, train passengers and subway and bus riders scrambled to adjust their routines, work commutes and vacations as transportation networks gradually scale back operations to minimize disruptions.
Coordinated transportation-related closures or slowdowns, often seen during winter storms in the Northeast, were mostly announced on Friday to give travelers enough time to adjust and ensure they stay away from Irene's fury.
New York's subway system, which carries 7 million riders daily and operates the largest fleet in the world, had never closed due to weather. The storied Staten Island Ferry was to suspend service Saturday night.
"You can listen to the noise of the elevated train. That's not going to be here this afternoon, and I think that's the message that people have to start understanding," said Michael Bloomberg, urging residents in designated evacuation areas to heed warnings to leave.
Subways were not expected to resume until Monday.
Reuters contributed to this report.
For updates on the storm, follow @GilShefler on Twitter.