Shoppers Find Empty Shelves as Hurricane Irene Tracks Up East Coast

"Got any kind of tape?"

That's the question anyone coming into Brown's Hardware in Rockaway Park, New York, asks on the Saturday morning before Irene hits. Noni Signoretti, one of the store's owners, greets customers by their first-names as she works the cash register. As of 10 a.m., there was no tape to be found.

"I sent someone out this morning to look for it but I feel like he's not going to be able to get it," Signoretti says once the line has calmed slightly. From North Carolina to Massachusetts, the sprawling area that has declared a "state of emergency," tape used to help secure windows has become a hot commodity. And as the hurricane approaches, highways to places where tape might still be on shelves are jammed with traffic.

Brown's is in the business of helping prepare those who have decided to stay and brave the storm. But even this is hard to plan. "As a normal store you have only so much of everything. You can't just whip it up out of nowhere," Signoretti says. Stores like hers can't do much in advance to prepare for hurricanes, she says, else they end up with unwanted merchandise on their hands should the storm change paths.

Residents didn't begin buying supplies until late Thursday, Signoretti says. "No one knew how bad it would be until right before. We live with the water every day, so people had to see it to believe it."

Unprecedented Evacuations in N.Y

The reality of the hurricane's threat hit home Friday for New Yorkers as Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered an unprecedented evacuation of low-lying and coastal areas that affects nearly a quarter of a million people.

Named by the Indians that once lived there, The Rockaways are a cluster of neighborhoods that sit on a skinny peninsula in the southernmost part of Queens, NY. Unlike other beach communities, Rockaway Park is inhabited mostly by locals, many of who are of Irish descent. On Saturday, the tree-lined streets and mid-century family homes were deserted. Most of the windows and doors had yet to be boarded or taped.

Erika and Javier Hernandez of nearby Far Rockaway left for Brooklyn on Friday after Mayor Bloomberg ordered a mandatory evacuation. Saturday morning at 8am, they caught a bus back to their home, which sits two houses away from the water. They hoped to move all of their belongings to the second floor before the last bus left Rockaway Park at 11 a.m.

"It's happened before," Javier Hernandez says. Two years ago a tropical storm knocked the shingles off of the outdoor wall. Two weeks ago, a summer thunderstorm flooded their basement.

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Still, the Hernandezes have no complaints about where they live. "We love it here. I don't want to leave if nothing bad happens," Javier Hernandez says. As of Saturday morning, the couple hadn't done anything to protect their house, though they hoped to find tape at Brown's.

Brown's isn't the only store struggling to meet demand. Across the East Coast, grocers and hardware stores -- large and small -- are selling out of the same products. On Friday, Home Depot (HD) sent out 500 trucks to its stores to replenish stock of products like generators, the AP reported.

Brown's, which has been owned by Signoretti's family for over 40 years, can't command mass deliveries like Lowe's or Home Depot. But as one of only two hardware stores on the Rockaway peninsula, their customers still need the same products. On Friday, Signoretti drove two hours into New Jersey to pick up sandbags, duct tape and flashlights. All have since sold out. She is expecting a FedEx delivery of sandbags around noon.

"We have to be there for the community," she says, as a customer brings her a cup of Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN) coffee. Signoretti plans to leave Brown's at 5 p.m. when the police will force businesses to shut their doors. Then, she and her cousins, who are also working at Brown's today, will return to their nearby homes to wait out Irene.
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