Shuttered shops and rapidly emptying streets were the sights which confronted locals and visitors in the normally-bustling centre of the Province’s capital as the storm approached yesterday.
One taxi driver told the News Letter the last time he could remember such a “dead” Belfast city centre during normal business hours was during the Troubles.
Meanwhile, tourists – some of whom had travelled almost halfway across the globe – voiced disappointment at finding that the city had become, in the words of one local woman, a “ghost town”.
From 2pm to about 2.30pm, this reporter surveyed the shops on Donegall Place, between the City Hall and Royal Avenue – arguably the most prominent and prestigious stretch of shopping real estate in Northern Ireland.
Of 32 trading businesses, just 10 were open – and some of them were in the process of shutting down for the day.
Many carried signs saying they were “closed due to storm” and had been shut since noon, but at 2pm there was merely a fresh breeze blowing and some mild drizzle.
Next, a major retailer with large premises, appeared virtually deserted. One worker (who would not give their name) said: “Our coffee shop is normally packed; you can’t get a seat in it. All the staff had to go for safety reasons.”
They then said the shop was due to shut in 10 minutes.
Taxi driver John McShane, 53 and from north Belfast, said: “It’s a nightmare. I think it’s panic over nothing.”
A taxi man for 27 years, he added “only in the Troubles” could he recall a similar occasion when the city was “as dead as this”.
Meanwhile, Michaela Best, 20, had just travelled from Ballymena to work, only to find her workplace had just taken a decision to shut for the day.
Standing on the street in front of City Hall, which by about 3pm had only a couple of people left on it, she said: “I think it’s a bit mad to see a city like Belfast that’s always so busy, so packed [like this]. It’s literally like a ghost town.”
Calum Rogerson, a 46-year-old from Edinburgh, who works for an outdoor activities company, had just flown into the Province at 11.30am with wife Val and children Gregor and Ellie (both 10) – a flight Val described as a “bumpy” ride.
They had aimed to travel on to Ballymena, but told the News Letter they intended to change their plans due to transport disruption.
Mr Rogerson said “it’s pretty dead in the town – and it looks like it’s getting worse ... it just feels a bit weird at the moment, coming to a bustling city like Belfast, and it’s almost like a Sunday morning”.
Asked if Edinburgh would have shut down too, he said: “Not to the same extent.”
Malte Knutzen, 19, a member of the German navy, had just tried to visit the Titanic centre along with his colleague but found it closed.
“In my opinion, it’s very strange,” he said.
“I’m from north Germany; we have also a lot of storms and such situations – they never close the shops.”
Soon after, a 16-strong group of retired teachers from Wuhan city in China (a journey of more than 5,500 miles) gathered at City Hall and discovered it was shut.
One declared repeatedly it was a “pity”, whilst Zhang Zhi Ying, 73, said in emphatic tone: “We wanted to enter and visit. But you closed everything. We are disappointed.”