NEW YORK -- At a Home Depot in midtown Manhattan, the shelves of flashlights, torches, lanterns and night lights were empty. The battery supply was dwindling, too. A stalwart Kay Singh, Home Depot veteran of two years, fielded angry questions from a growing crowd.
"No more flashlights, sorry. How about a solar lantern?" She asked a group of about 10 people, clutching tarps and duct tape. "If you put it out today, it might still be good tomorrow."
A man shook his head, "No I've got a lot of those in my yard, I'll just pull them out."
As the first major hurricane to approach New York City in a quarter-century gets closer, Manhattanites more practiced at handling blizzards and brunch lines are gathering supplies -- and steeling their nerves -- for a foreign threat. Unlike residents farther south who might be more practiced with weathering hurricanes, the crowd in Manhattan didn't seem to know what to do. Instead of buying generators and gasoline, as many coastal homeowners routinely do, apartment dwellers were thinking less about protecting their property, more about protecting themselves.
The hunt was on: Water? Check. Liquor for hurricane parties? Check. Flashlights? If you can find them.
For an enterprising hardware store less than a block away, Home Depot's empty storeroom became their windfall. Since 7:30 A.M., a frenzied trio of workers at 727 Hardware Company sold an estimated 1,000 flashlights at $12.99 a pop, and more were on the way every half hour.
Susan Lee had already tried Home Depot, and was striking out at Duane Reade when someone shouted out, "They have shipments of flashlights at the hardware store next door!" she recalled. Lee was part of a flood of customers mobbing the cramped and dimly lit store on Sixth Avenue.
An employee arrived with a dolly loaded with boxes of flashlights and batteries. He sliced open the top layer of boxes and customers began shoving each other aside to get the goods.
The employee, who declined to give his name, also declined to reveal the source of the newly prized items. "A connection," he said.
Among those in line, there were varying degrees of anxiety.
Lee, who led the charge from Duane Reed, had printed off the entire suggested 10 item emergency preparedness kit from the city's Office of Emergency Management. The only item she still needed was a whistle -- the hardware store was out.
"I'm the kind of person who wants to be prepared," said Lee, who grew up in Manhattan and has been no stranger to hurricanes creeping up the east coast. "We always got hurricane warnings but there's something different about this."
But others in line had their own emergency lists.
"Coffee is my main problem," confided Angela Palumbo, a New Jersey resident. "That's pretty sad isn't it? Well, that and my house flooding. But --" she shrugged, "What can you do?"
Palumbo was buying a can opener -- for the coffee -- in case her electric opener wouldn't work. "The last storm... Andrew... whatever it was? You couldn't make coffee. Now we've got a charcoal grill, charcoal and one of those coffee makers that you can use on an open grill."
The girls in front of Palumbo in line, on a break from their office jobs across the street, were stocking up on flashlights -- and headed to the liquor store next.
"Wine, some peanut butter and a poncho," said Shelby, describing her perfect hurricane weekend. She has been invited, she said, to at least three hurricane parties. She was excited. "I missed the earthquake, so I'm pissed about that."
Back at Home Depot, the crowd was growing increasingly frustrated by the empty shelves.
Max Berenstein, clutching a plastic tarp, wasn't sure what to expect, buy or feel.
"It's a new experience," he said. "The big thing now is, 'How worried should people be?' Should we buy plywood? Should we board up the windows?"
Singh, the employee manning the barebones battery shelves, shrugged. "People are crazy, stressed out, scared to death. There's a lot of panic going around. People say, 'Oh why don't you have any more flashlights? Home Depot should have everything,'" she laughs. "We can try to satisfy people as much as possible, but if its done it's done."