City workers swept the wet, deserted streets of New York early Monday morning as the city boarded up its windows against Hurricane Sandy.

While some intrepid couples in bright rain jackets and gumboots took stimulating strolls along the East River greenway, the park (normally full of picnickers and wedding parties) was empty. As were the boutique cafes and supermarkets, so packed the day before with panicked shoppers rushing to buy their comfort provisions.

New York, the hustling metropolis where stroppy business types and eccentrics push past each other to get to somewhere very important, ground to a screaming halt. The 8.5 million people who use the sprawling subway each day: immobilised, forced to stay put. Even the New York stock exchange was shuttered, for the first time since 2001.

But as the transport system shut down and businesses closed their doors, mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the compulsory evacuation of 375,000 residents in low lying areas. That meant enclaves of activity popped up in schools, halls and other makeshift emergency shelters. Bars put out signs with half price beer and “Sandy Smoothies” — one read “Sandy Baby: Come beat this hurricane, board up and drink beer with us”. The local 99c store, dealing with a rush on flashlights and wet weather gear, upped their prices. How much for one small torch and batteries? $26.50. What about a pair of gumboots? $85.

“I’d rather have me some wet feet,” huffed one woman as she stormed out of the crowded shop. Wall Street might be under water, but the equally unregulated Frankenstorm economy was moving in to fill the gap. On the ever reliable Craiglist, tickets to popular Broadway productions were reduced by at least 50%, Mom and Pap businesses advertised Sandy sandbags and pre-emptive yard clean-ups, and limo services offered a smooth ride through the torrents.

Thanks to last year’s hurricane Irene, the city is much more prepared this time around and the residents more relaxed. One police officer on Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn suggested it might be to their detriment. “We’re finding that a lot people aren’t evacuating as they should be,” he said. “Irene passed with minimal drama here in New York, so they’re sceptical about how dramatic Sandy is gonna be.”

Only about 100 people and their pets escaped to a Park Slope high school on Sunday night. During Irene at least 1000 people from Red Hook and the Rockaways piled into the same space.

But Sandy is already shaping up to be a much more ferocious storm, or storms, than Irene, and she hasn’t even made landfall yet. At low tide on Monday morning artsy Red Hook, once a busy freight port, had sections already under water, as were parts of Battery City in the lower Manhattan financial district.

And authorities are getting tough. Housing management locked Columbia University professor Bob Shapiro out of his high rise in Battery Park City. He heeded warnings and evacuated to a hotel uptown, but for residents who refused to leave they were emailed this warning: “If you plan on leaving please do so before noon otherwise you will need to shelter in place and will not be able to exit the building”.

The email added that emergency personnel would not be entering evacuated areas at all, as Bloomberg had previously warned. “That means no fire, police or ambulance,” the email read.

Shapiro, although relieved he’d got out in time, was battling the media hype. “Midtown is drizzling and only a bit windy. It hardly feels like a major disaster may occur even elsewhere in the city,” he told Crikey. “We’re just hoping this will all settle down in 24 hours and we can return home by Wednesday.”

But as Sandy pounded the US coast and winds picked up in New York, politicians busied themselves on how to manage what could be The Perfect Storm. Both Romney and Obama made some hefty schedule changes rerouting and cancelling appearances.

The stakes are higher for Obama though — the President needs to strike the perfect balance between crucial campaigning and proving he can fulfil his official role as a leader. He flew back to the White House on Monday afternoon to monitor Sandy’s progress and assign emergency services as needed.

“Everyone is watching the TV, so campaigns that are on the air with ads are getting maximum viewership,” Obama senior advisor Jamie Fox told Crikey. “Obama will control the news for critical days before the election, which will allow him to display his presidential prowess. This will give Romney no opportunity to attack him.”

Romney might need some disaster management of his own. He spent much of the morning deflecting attention from his 2011 call to privatise federal emergency relief. He told Larry King it was “immoral” to spend money on disasters rather than deficit reduction. When asked directly whether disaster relief should be cut, Romney responded: “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”

For the 60 million people in the US, or almost 20% of the population, who are expected to suffer under Sandy’s destruction over the next week and who will be clamouring for electricity and flood relief, that might be an unnerving statement.

Peter Fray

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