Death, darkness in wake
By ALLEN G. BREED and TOM HAYS
NEW YORK -- As superstorm Sandy marched slowly inland, millions along the East Coast awoke today without power or mass transit, with huge swaths of the nation's largest city unusually vacant and dark.
New York was among the hardest hit, with its financial heart in Lower Manhattan shuttered for a second day and seawater cascading into the still-gaping construction pit at the World Trade Center. President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in the city and Long Island.
The storm that made landfall in New Jersey on Monday evening with 80 mph sustained winds killed at least 17 people in seven states, cut power to more than 7.4 million homes and businesses from the Carolinas to Ohio, caused scares at two nuclear power plants and stopped the presidential campaign cold a week from the election.
Authorities launched an effort to evacuate approximately 800 people in the town of Moonachie in northern New Jersey early today after a berm overflowed, authorities said.
The massive storm reached well into the Midwest. Chicago officials warned residents to stay away from the Lake Michigan shore as the city prepares for winds of up to 60 mph and waves exceeding 24 feet well into Wednesday.
"This will be one for the record books," said John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations at Consolidated Edison, which had more than 670,000 customers without power in and around New York City.
An unprecedented 13-foot surge of seawater -- 3 feet above the previous record -- gushed into Gotham, inundating tunnels, subway stations and the electrical system that powers Wall Street, and sent hospital patients and tourists scrambling for safety. Skyscrapers swayed and creaked in winds that partially toppled a crane 74 stories above Midtown.
The massive storm caused the worst damage in the 108-year history of New York's extensive subway system, according to Joseph Lhota, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Right before dawn today, a handful of taxis were out on the streets, though there was an abundance of emergency and police vehicles.
Remnants of the former Category 1 hurricane were forecast to head across Pennsylvania before taking another sharp turn into western New York by Wednesday morning. Although weakening as it goes, the massive storm -- which caused wind warnings from Florida to Canada -- will continue to bring heavy rain and local flooding, said Daniel Brown, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
As Hurricane Sandy closed in on the Northeast, it converged with a cold-weather system that turned it into a monstrous hybrid of rain and high wind -- and even snow in West Virginia and other mountainous areas inland.
Just before it made landfall at 8 p.m. near Atlantic City, N.J., forecasters stripped Sandy of hurricane status -- but the distinction was purely technical, based on its shape and internal temperature. It still packed hurricane-force wind, and forecasters were careful to say it was still dangerous to the tens of millions in its path.
While the hurricane's 90 mph winds registered as only a Category 1 on a scale of five, it packed "astoundingly low" barometric pressure, giving it terrific energy to push water inland, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at MIT.
Officials blamed at least 16 deaths on the converging storms -- five in New York, three each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, two in Connecticut, and one each in Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia. Three of the victims were children, one just 8 years old.
Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Eastern Seaboard, began to hook left at midday Monday toward the New Jersey coast. Even before it made landfall, crashing waves had claimed an old, 50-foot piece of Atlantic City's world-famous Boardwalk.
"We are looking at the highest storm surges ever recorded" in the Northeast, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground, a private forecasting service.
Sitting on the dangerous northeast wall of the storm, the New York metropolitan area got the worst of it.
An explosion at a Con-Edison substation knocked out power to approximately 310,000 customers in Manhattan, Miksad said.
"We see a pop. The whole sky lights up," said Dani Hart, 30, who was watching the storm from the roof of her building in the Navy Yards.
"It sounded like the Fourth of July," Stephen Weisbrot said from his 10th-floor apartment.
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.
Not only was the subway shut down, but the Holland Tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey was closed, as was a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and several other spans were closed due to high winds.