By Jill Colvin, Andrea Swalec and Tom Liddy
MANHATTAN —Thousands of residents who evacuated low-lying parts of Manhattan ahead of Hurricane Irene started returning home Sunday afternoon as the city worked to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Irene.
Michael Dalewitz, 32, a Tribeca resident who was back in the neighborhood Sunday after evacuating with his wife, infant daughter and dog, said he heeded the city's call to get out.
"What saved my life on 9/11 was someone telling me to run," said the legal services worker, who was only a few blocks away from Ground Zero at the time of the attacks. "So when someone tells me to run, I listen."
So Dalewitz packed up his family and and went to his in-laws' place on the Upper East Side.
"I have a young daughter," he said. "So I figured we were better safe than sorry."
For Jackie Leak, leaving her home on N. Moore and Greenwich streets was a good distraction from dropping her daughter off at college.
"It was something for me to focus on other than my daughter being gone," she said. Leak found out about the evacuation order after taking her daughter to Johns Hopkins on Friday.
But Ron Glucksman, 50, also of Tribeca, said that he "couldn't be bothered" to follow the mandatory evacuation order. Instead, he and some pals stayed home, "cooked, watched movies...and slept through it," he said.
"I just couldn't be bothered. It didn't seem like too strong a storm."
While many New Yorkers were returning to normalcy Monday morning, a massive operation was underway to assess the storm's damage and to get the city's frozen infrastructure operating again.
Fire officials received hundreds of calls reporting down trees and building damage, including blown-out windows and basement flooding, but there were no reports of hurricane-related deaths or injuries, fire officials said.
“Whether we dodged the bullet or you looked at it and said, God smiled on us, the bottom line is that I’m happy to report there does not seem to be any deaths attributable to the storm,” Bloomberg said, after praising city commissioners and state officials for their response and planning.
But hours after the center of the storm cleared the area, a man was found dead in the water at the Sunset Marina off 551 City Island Ave. in The Bronx, police said.
The body of Jose Sierra, 68, was found by the marina's owner at 4:40 p.m. Around 8 a.m. the owner had seen Sierra enter the marina, where he may have kept a boat, cops said.
The cause of death was not known and it was not clear if the death was storm-related. No criminality was suspected.
Of MTA Chief Jay Walder's work in getting the agency's equipment out of harm's way ahead of the storm, Bloomberg told staffers: "I think we made the right call."
Many stretches of Manhattan began to return to normal Sunday, with sidewalk cafes open in the West Village and tourists packing Times Square.
At the hurricane's peak, some 121,000 customers across the five boroughs were left without power. But a small percentage of those were in Manhattan. Updated information about outages can be found here.
Residents along the rivers also were facing property damage from Hurricane Irene.
“We are seeing some very serious consequences of the storm,” Bloomberg said. “As we anticipated, the storm surge has caused serious flooding across the five boroughs, including here in Lower Manhattan, where the East and Hudson rivers are flowing over their banks and into the parks and low-lying streets at the water’s edge.”
Damage has been reported on both sides of the river, including near the Manhattan Bridge on the east side and near the Boat Basin in Riverside Park.
While some who disobeyed the evacuation order felt the city’s response was overblown, Bloomberg defended the call to evacuate and shut down the transit system ahead of a less-severe-than-predicted storm.
“I think it’s fair to say we were just unwilling to risk the life of any New Yorker," he said. “They should look in the mirror. Because they’re alive today, because of it or in spite of it."