Qualm Before the Storm: East Coasters Clean Out Store Shelves in Last-Minute Preparations

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A shopper walks past a near empty water shelf at a Waldbaum's store on August 27, 2011 in Bethpage, New York.

As Hurricane Irene's crosshairs focused on the East Coast, residents went shopping. After days of anxiety-inducing weather reports and State of Emergency declarations from governors from almost every state along the northeast corridor, President Obama took to the airwaves midday on Friday to issue a warning. "All indications point to this being a historic hurricane," he said. "I cannot stress this enough. If you are in the projected path of this hurricane, you have to take precautions. Don't wait. Don't delay."

Residents listened. Before the workday let out stories began popping up on social networking sites of grocery and drug stores being cleared of supplies. People from the Carolinas, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Boston tweeted photos of empty shelves and posted updates on Facebook about getting in fights over the last gallon jugs of water. Flash lights, batteries and radios were nowhere to be found. Neither were cans of tuna fish.

In New York, as the city scrambled to evacuate some 300,000 people in low-lying areas and planned for the shutdown of the entire public transportation system for the first time in history because of a natural disaster, lines stretched out of grocery stores everywhere from the Upper East Side to the East Village in Manhattan to the outer bureaus.

At one store, Whole Foods in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, customers packed the aisles. By 6pm the shelves were cleared of produce, bread and canned goods. One especially popular area was the bulk food department. As people elbowed each other to get nuts, grains, rice, trail mix and other dry goods, one customer said, "I'd rather starve than deal with these animals," and walked away. When asked where she was headed, she said, "The liquor store." Looking around the store filled with shoppers who pushed overflowing carts, she said, "It's like every vegan in New York thinks the apocalypse is coming."

The scene was calmer, but the shelves just as empty, at a nearby Duane Reade drug store on Saturday afternoon. The store manager, who declined to give his name, told TIME most people were stocking up on food, water, toiletries and medicine. He said the store had sold out of more than 100 gallons of water and 90 24-pack cases of water bottles on Friday. They got another shipment of water this morning, but within an hour or so it was sold out too. Only Perrier and Pellegrino remained on the shelf. The beer shelf was quickly growing sparse. The store manager said they had sold out of that too on Friday, but had received more Saturday morning. "And on top of that," he said. "No employees came to work." He felt bad asking them to risk their safety to come in, he said, so when no one showed for the morning shift, he didn't even bother to call them and ask them to come in. As for how he would get back to his home in the Bronx after the normally 24-hour store closes at 5pm today, he said, "Take a cab. I hope."

One resident, 32-year-old Amanda Cartagena, came to Duane Reade to shop for matches and a strainer to put in her sink so she could fill it with water. She lives in an evacuation zone, but has not yet been forced to leave, and said she is most worried about losing power. She stocked up yesterday to have enough supplies on hand for she and her housemate and as many as three other people who may come to weather the storm at her apartment. She went to Key Foods yesterday on the Lower East Side to stock up on canned soups, Luna Bars, tuna fish and nine gallons of water. "Everyone was buying bread — I don't get it. Isn't that perishable?" she asked. "I stocked up on Amy's soups because they are good cold and have a lot of protein."

Cartagena is likely more prepared than many New Yorkers. She has packed a "to-go bag" in case she has to leave, complete with a survival kit that contains, among other things, a tent, self-heating blanket, an AM/FM crank-operated radio, gloves, a flashlight and a poncho. The kit, which was on sale for 50% off, cost her $54, but she says it's worth it. "All my co-workers said I was being crazy, but I'm just trying to be cautious," she said. "I hope I didn't make a bad decision by not leaving." Despite the run on grocery stores, Cartagena said she thinks most New York residents have not prepared enough. "Sure, some people are going overboard," she said. "But so many haven't prepared anything. They think, 'this is New York, nothing can happen to us here.'"