NEW YORK, (Reuters) – Millions of people were left reeling in the aftermath of the massive storm Sandy today as New York City and a wide swathe of the eastern United States struggled with epic flooding and extensive power outages. The death toll climbed to at least 30.
Sandy, which crashed ashore with hurricane-force winds on Monday near the New Jersey gambling resort of Atlantic City as the biggest storm to hit the country in generations, swamped parts of New York’s subway system and Manhattan’s Wall Street district, closing financial markets for a second day.
Businesses and homes along the New Jersey shore were wrecked and communities were submerged under floodwater across a large area. More than 8 million homes and businesses in several states were without electricity as trees toppled by Sandy’s fierce winds took down power lines.
Some cities like Washington and Boston that felt some of the effects of Sandy were spared widespread devastation and appeared ready to return to nearly normal conditions by Wednesday. But other places like New York City and large parts of New Jersey were hit especially hard and likely will require at least several days to get back on their feet.
“The devastation is unthinkable,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said after seeing aerial pictures of the New Jersey shore.
A large blaze destroyed more than 50 homes in the New York City borough of Queens as flooding hampered firefighting efforts. Neighborhoods along the East and Hudson rivers in Manhattan were underwater, as were low-lying streets in Battery Park near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood.
As the weakened but still sprawling storm system continued its destructive trek inland, more than 1 million people in a dozen states along its path were still under orders to evacuate.
The storm interrupted the U.S. presidential campaign just a week before the Nov. 6 election.
Seeking to show he was staying on top of a storm situation that affected a densely populated region, the White House said Obama planned to tour damaged areas of New Jersey on Wednesday accompanied by Christie. The New Jersey governor, who has been a strong supporter of Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney, praised Obama and the federal government’s response to the storm.
“New Jersey, New York in particular have been pounded by this storm. Connecticut has taken a big hit,” Obama said during a visit to Red Cross headquarters in Washington.
Obama issued federal emergency decrees for New York and New Jersey, declaring that “major disasters” existed in both states. One disaster-forecasting company predicted economic losses could ultimately reach $20 billion, only half insured.
‘A DEVASTATING STORM’
“Make no mistake about it. This was a devastating storm, maybe the worst we have ever experienced,” New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
All along the East Coast, residents and business owners found scenes of destruction.
“There are boats in the street five blocks from the ocean,” said evacuee Peter Sandomeno, one of the owners of the Broadway Court Motel in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. “That’s the worst storm I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been there for 11 years.”
Sandy, which was especially imposing because of its wide-ranging winds, brought a record storm surge of almost 14 feet (4.2 meters) to downtown Manhattan, well above the previous record of 10 feet (3 meters) during Hurricane Donna in 1960, the National Weather Service said.
Water poured into the subway tunnels that course under the city, the country’s financial capital, and Bloomberg said the subway system would likely be closed for four or five days.
“Hitting at high tide, the strongest surge and the strongest winds all hit at the worst possible time,” said Jeffrey Tongue, a meteorologist for the weather service in Brookhaven, New York.
Hurricane-force winds as high as 90 miles per hour (145 km per hour) were recorded, he said. “Hopefully it’s a once-in-a-lifetime storm,” Tongue said.
As residents and business owners began a massive clean-up effort and faced a long and costly recovery, large parts of the region remained without power, and transportation in the New York metropolitan area was at a standstill.
The U.S. Department of Energy said more than 8 million homes and businesses in several states were without electricity due to the storm.
“This storm is not yet over,” Obama told reporters at the Red Cross as he warned of the dangers of continued flooding, downed power lines and high winds. Obama, possibly mindful that disgruntled storm victims could mean problems for his re-election bid, vowed to push hard for power to be restored.
The flooding hampered efforts to fight a massive fire that destroyed more than 50 homes in Breezy Point, a private beach community on the Rockaway barrier island in the New York City borough of Queens.
New York University’s Tisch hospital was forced to evacuate more than 200 patients, among them babies on respirators in the neonatal intensive care unit, when the backup generator failed.
Four of the newborns had to be carried down nine flights of stairs while nurses manually squeezed bags to deliver air to the babies’ lungs, CNN reported.
The death toll continued to rise, with reports of at least 30 people killed, at least 10 of them in New York City alone.
Storm-related deaths were reported elsewhere in New York state in addition to Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Toronto police also recorded one death – a woman hit by flying debris.
Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean last week before pounding U.S. coastal areas.
Federal government offices in Washington were closed for a second day on Tuesday but were due to open on Wednesday. Schools were shut up and down the East Coast but were due to reopen on Wednesday in many places.
The storm weakened as it plowed slowly west across southern Pennsylvania, its remnants situated between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with maximum winds down to 45 mph (72 kph), the National Hurricane Center said.
As Sandy converged with a cold weather system, blizzard warnings were in effect for West Virginia, western Maryland, eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and western North Carolina.
At its peak, the storm’s wind field stretched from North Carolina north to the Canadian border and from West Virginia to a point in the Atlantic Ocean halfway to Bermuda, easily one of the largest ever seen, the hurricane center said.
Obama and Romney put campaigning on hold for a second day.
But the campaign truce was likely to be short-lived, as Romney planned to hit the trail again in Florida on Wednesday. Obama appeared likely to resume campaigning on Thursday for a final five-day sprint to Election Day.
Obama faces political danger if the federal government fails to respond well, as was the case with predecessor George W. Bush’s botched handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Obama has a chance to show not only that his administration has learned the lessons of Katrina but that he can take charge and lead during a national crisis.
Three towns in New Jersey, just west of New York City, were inundated with up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) of water after the nearby Hackensack River flooded, officials said. Rescuers were using boats to aid the marooned residents of Moonachie, Little Ferry and Carlstadt.
Much of New York City was deserted, as its subways, buses, commuter trains, bridges and airports were closed. Power outages darkened most of downtown Manhattan as well as Westchester County, affecting more than 650,000 customers, power company Consolidated Edison said.