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Sandy leaves death, damp and darkness in US

Tuesday, October 30, 2012 | 5:41 AM    

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NEW YORK, USA (AP) — As Superstorm Sandy marched slowly inland, millions along the US 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 Centre.

The storm that made landfall in New Jersey on Monday evening with 80 mph (130 kph) sustained winds killed at least 16 people in seven states, cut power to more than six million homes and businesses from the Carolinas to Ohio, caused scares at two nuclear power plants, and put the presidential campaign on hold a week before Election Day.

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 (96 kph) and waves exceeding 24 feet (7.2 meters) 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 (3.9-meter) surge of seawater — 3 feet (90 centimetres) above the previous record — gushed into lower Manhattan, 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.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in New York and Long Island, making federal funding available to residents of the area.

Right before dawn, 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 state by Wednesday morning. As of 5 am (0900 GMT) today, the storm was centered about 90 miles (145 kilometres) west of Philadelphia.

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 Centre 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 pm near Atlantic City, New Jersey, 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 in the US 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 eight years old. At least one death was blamed on the storm in Canada.

Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Atlantic Coast, 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 (15-meter) 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 ConEdison substation knocked out power to about 310,000 customers in Manhattan, said Miksad.

"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 in Brooklyn.

"It sounded like the Fourth of July," Stephen Weisbrot said from his 10th-floor apartment in lower Manhattan.

A huge fire destroyed at least 50 homes in a flooded neighbourhood by the Atlantic Ocean in the New York City borough of Queens. Firefighters told WABC-TV that they had to use a boat to make rescues. Two people suffered minor injuries, a fire department spokesman said.

The fire was reported around 11 pm Monday in an area flooded by the superstorm that began sweeping through the city earlier, officials said.

Firefighters told WABC-TV that the water was chest high on the street, and they had to use a boat to make rescues. They said in one apartment home, about 25 people were trapped in an upstairs unit, and the two-storey home next door was ablaze and setting fire to the apartment's roof. Firefighters climbed an awning to access the trapped people, and took them downstairs to the boat in the street.

Video footage of the scene shows a hellish swath of tightly packed homes fully engulfed in orange flames as firefighters hauled hoses while sloshing in ankle-high water. Many homes appeared completely flattened by the wind-whipped flames.

The neighbourhood sits on the Rockaway peninsula jutting into the Atlantic Ocean.

In September, the beachfront neighbourhood was struck by a tornado that hurled debris in the air, knocked out power and startled residents who once thought of twisters as a Midwestern phenomenon.

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 the neonatal intensive care unit who were on battery-powered respirators — had to be carried down staircases and to dozens of ambulances waiting to take them to other hospitals.

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.

A construction crane atop a $1.5 billion luxury high-rise in midtown Manhattan collapsed in high winds and dangled precariously. Thousands of people were ordered to leave several nearby buildings as a precaution, including 900 guests at the ultramodern Le Parker Meridien hotel.

Alice Goldberg, 15, a tourist from Paris, was watching television in the hotel — whose slogan is "Uptown, Not Uptight" — when a voice came over the loudspeaker and told everyone to leave.

"They said to take only what we needed, and leave the rest, because we'll come back in two or three days," she said as she and hundreds of others gathered in the luggage-strewn marble lobby. "I hope so."

Trading at the New York Stock Exchange was cancelled again Tuesday — the first time the exchange suspended operations for two consecutive days due to weather since an 1888 blizzard struck the city.

Airlines cancelled around 12,500 flights because of the storm, a number that was expected to grow.

Off North Carolina, not far from an area known as "the Graveyard of the Atlantic," a replica of the 18th-century sailing ship HMS Bounty that was built for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie "Mutiny on the Bounty" sank when her diesel engine and bilge pumps failed. Coast Guard helicopters plucked 14 crew members from rubber lifeboats bobbing in 18-foot (5.4-meter) seas.

A 15th crew member who was found unresponsive several hours after the others was later pronounced dead. The Bounty's captain was still missing.

One of the units at Indian Point, a nuclear power plant about 45 miles (72kilometers) north of New York City, was shut down around 10:45 pm Monday because of external electrical grid issues, said Entergy Corp, which operates the plant. The company said there was no risk to employees or the public.

And officials declared an "unusual event" at the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey Township, New Jersey, the nation's oldest, when waters surged to 6 feet (1.8 meters) above sea level during the evening. Within two hours, the situation at the reactor — which was offline for regular maintenance — was upgraded to an alert, the second-lowest in a four-tiered warning system. Oyster Creek provides 9 percent of the state's electricity.

In Baltimore, fire officials said four unoccupied rowhouses collapsed in the storm, sending debris into the street but causing no injuries. Meanwhile, a blizzard in far western Maryland caused a pileup of tractor-trailers that blocked the westbound lanes of Interstate 68 on slippery Big Savage Mountain near the town of Finzel.

Hundreds of miles (kilometres) from the storm's centre, gusts topping 60 mph (96 kph) prompted officials to close the port of Portland, Maine, scaring away several cruise ships. A state of emergency in New Hampshire prompted Vice President Joe Biden to cancel a rally in Keene and Republican nominee Mitt Romney's wife, Ann, to call off her bus tour through the Granite State.

President Barack Obama scrapped his campaign events for Monday and today to hunker down at the White House to oversee the government's response to the superstorm and project presidential leadership. Romney was going ahead with a planned event in Ohio today, but his campaign said its focus would be on storm relief.

About 360,000 people in 30 Connecticut towns were urged to leave their homes under mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders. Christi McEldowney was among those who fled to a Fairfield shelter. She and other families brought tents for their children to play in.

"There's something about this storm," she said. "I feel it deep inside."

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