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Flooding, power outages cripple Northeast USA

11:57 AM, Oct 30, 2012   |    comments
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The death toll from megastorm Sandy climbed rapidly on Tuesday as millions of people across the Eastern Seaboard began dealing with the extensive damage caused by massive flooding, high winds and fire.

An estimated 7.4 million people were without power and the U.S. death toll climbed to 33, many of the victims killed by falling trees. Seventeen of the victims were in New York State, including 10 in New York City.

Sandy also killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Eastern Seaboard.

President Obama declared New York and New Jersey federal disaster areas.

The disaster declaration makes federal funding available to residents and businesses in the affected areas, which bore the brunt of the sea surge from the superstorm. Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground, a private forecasting service, called the storm surges some of the highest ever recorded.

In New Jersey, where the storm came ashore, hundreds of people were being evacuated in rising water early Tuesday. Officials were using boats to try to rescue about 800 people living in a trailer park in Moonachie.

There were no reports of injuries or deaths. Local authorities initially reported a levee had broken, but Gov. Chris Christie said a berm overflowed.

In New York City, the city was shut down, cut off and in many places dark. A 13-foot storm surge, 3 feet above the previous record, caused flooding and widespread power outages. The city's subway system was shut down due to flooding. The Holland Tunnel, which connects New York to New Jersey, and a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan, were both closed. High winds forced the closure of the Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and several other spans.

"It was an extremely devastating and destructive storm, hopefully one that people will only see once in their lifetime," said Joe Pollina, a National Weather Center meteorologist.

More than 696,000 customers were without electrical power in the city's five boroughs and the northern suburb of Westchester County, said Allan Drury, a Consolidated Edison spokesman.

Although all areas were hard hit, one of the storms hardest punches struck lower Manhattan. An estimated 234,000 customers were without power from 31st Street on the West Side and 39th Street on the East Side all the way south to the southern tip of the island, said Drury.

That area includes the New York Stock Exchange, Ground Zero and well-known neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Soho and Tribeca. The power outages shut down most of the scattering of delicatessens, coffee shops and other small stores that had managed to ride out the storm before darkness fell Monday night.

Con Ed's Monday decision to pre-emptively cut power to parts of lower Manhattan helped spare some underground electrical equipment from catastrophic damage, he said. But that appeared to be a slim silver lining.

"The storm surge and flooding surpassed everybody's expectations," said Drury. "We do not have a firm estimated time of (electrical) restoration. Obviously, it's going to be a multi-day process."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in an interview with WCBS News radio said Tuesday that "power restoration is going to be a real challenge."

"You want to talk about a situation that gets old very quickly. You are sitting in a house with no power and you can't open the refrigerator," he said. "That gets very frustrating."

Cuomo said that mass transit will most likely be restored "in pieces" and "over a period of time."

Seven subway tunnels under the East River flooded during the storm Monday night, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. So did the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, a vehicular crossing that links lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The Metro-North commuter train system was without power from Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan deep into stops in the northern suburbs, said MTA spokeswomen Judy Glave and Deidre Parker.

MTA chief Joseph Lhota told WCBS News radio early Tuesday that he hopes to restore mass transit in stages, with pumping flooded tunnels and cleaning switches first. Some bus service is likely to return first on Wednesday, he said.

Evidence of the storm's power came from a new record high water level of 13.88 feet at the tip of lower Manhattan at 9:24 p.m. Monday, a time that roughly coincided with high tide and the full moon that also strengthens tides. Pollina said the record shattered the mark of 10.02 feet set during Hurricane Donna in 1960.

Wind gusts from the storm registered as high as 96 miles per hour at an elevated location at Eatons Neck on Long Island, said Pollina. JFK Airport in Queens clocked a 79 mile per hour gust, while Newark Airport was right behind at 78 miles per hour and even Central Park was buffeted with a high gust of 62 miles per hour, said Pollina.

In the borough of Queens, a fire destroyed at least 80-100 homes early Tuesday morning in a flooded zone. Firefighters reported chest-high water on the street and used a boat to rescue residents. A massive explosion at a power substation in Lower Manhattan on Monday evening contributed to the power outages. No one was injured, and the power company did not know whether the explosion was caused by flooding or by flying debris.

New York University's Tisch Hospital was forced to evacuate 200 patients after its backup generator failed. NYU Medical Dean Robert Grossman said patients - among them 20 babies from neonatal intensive care that were on battery-powered respirators - had to be carried down staircases and to dozens of waiting ambulances.

Stock trading was closed in the U.S. for a second day Tuesday - the first time the New York Stock Exchange will be closed for two consecutive days due to weather since 1888, when a blizzard struck the city.

Sandy's winds have dropped below hurricane force as the storm spins into the interior Northeast Tuesday. As of 11 a.m. ET Tuesday, the center of Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy was located about 120 miles east southeast of Pittsburgh and about 145 miles west of Philadelphia, according to the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center (HPC). It had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph and was moving to the west at 10 mph.

The storm has slowed its forward motion and is expected to continue its westward motion across southern Pennsylvania this afternoon, the HPC reported. It should move into New York State tonight and into Canada on Wednesday.

Sandy is still expected to produce strong winds across the Mid-Atlantic and New England, as well as rainfall amounts of 4-8 inches over portions of the Mid-Atlantic. Additionally, snowfall totals of 2-3 feet are possible in the mountains of West Virginia, where blizzard warnings remain in effect.

The storm surge threat from Sandy has diminished, but a concern about river flooding remains from the rain that fell yesterday and continues to fall. Flood watches and warnings have been put in place from Virginia to Maine.

Even though water levels along the coast have been subsiding since Monday evening, the combination of the storm surge and high tide could still cause areas to flood, especially during the next high tide. Flood and flash flood warnings were still in effect over coastal waters in the mid-Atlantic states, New York and New England. The Weather Service was predicting that water could reach between 2 and 4 feet above ground level in Delaware Bay and the upper and middle Chesapeake Bay. The Jersey shore northward to Massachusetts was expected to reach between 1 and 3 feet.

The storm first made landfall in New Jersey Monday evening and by Tuesday morning had affected people from the Carolinas to Ohio with power outages. It reached as far as Chicago, where officials warned residents to stay away from the Lake Michigan shore as the city prepared for winds of up to 60 mph and waves exceeding 24 feet into Wednesday.

Residents of low lying sections of Amityville on the south shore of Long Island emerged Tuesday from powerless homes to find a landscape of fallen trees downed wires and misplaced objects -- especially boats.

Chris McGirk, owner of the Delmarine Yacht Yard, found a 40 foot cabin cruiser blocking the entrance to his boatyard. The storm surge from Sandy lifted it over a 4-foot-high chain-link fence in the neighboring boatyard.

Mcgirk's is part of a group of 13 yards on the Great South Bay. Dozens of craft were lifted by the surge or sunk. Water rose about four feet around Mcgirk's office and totally submerged some business offices closer to the water.

"I barely got out of here last night," he said. "I had eight pumps going. I'm in the office and the water was rising."

Other storm-related events:

- Airlines canceled more than 14,000 flights nationally because of the storm.

- The Indian Point nuclear power plant about 45 miles north of New York City was shut down Monday night because of external electrical grid issues. Entergy Corp., which operates the plant, said there was no risk to employees or the public.

- An "unusual event" was declared at the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey Township, N.J., when waters surged to 6 feet above sea level during the evening. The reactor was offline for regular maintenance and the event was quickly upgraded to an alert, the second-lowest in a four-tiered warning system.

- In Baltimore, four unoccupied row houses collapsed in the storm, sending debris into the street but causing no injuries.

- A blizzard in western Maryland caused a pileup of tractor-trailers that blocked the westbound lanes of Interstate 68.

- Winds as high as 60 mph caused officials to close the port of Portland, Maine, keeping several cruise ships from docking.

Kevin McCoy and Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

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