Pittsburgh • The most devastating storm in decades to hit the country’s most densely populated region upended man and nature as it rolled back the clock on 21st-century lives, cutting off modern communication and leaving millions without power Tuesday as thousands who fled their water-menaced homes wondered when — if — life would return to normal.
A weakening Sandy, the hurricane turned fearsome superstorm, killed at least 50 people, many hit by falling trees, and still wasn’t finished. It inched inland across Pennsylvania, ready to bank toward western New York to dump more of its water and likely cause more havoc Tuesday night. Behind it: a dazed, inundated New York City, a waterlogged Atlantic Coast and a moonscape of disarray and debris — from unmoored shore-town boardwalks to submerged mass-transit systems to delicate presidential politics.
Sandy takes out 25 percent of cell towers
Federal regulators say Hurricane Sandy knocked out a quarter of the cell towers in an area spreading across ten states, and the situation could get worse before it gets better.
Many cell towers that are still working are doing so with the help of generators and could run out of fuel before commercial power is restored, the Federal Communications Commission says.
The landline phone network has held up better in the affected area, which stretches from Virginia to Massachusetts, the FCC says, but about a quarter of cable customers are also without service.
"Nature," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, assessing the damage to his city, "is an awful lot more powerful than we are."
More than 8.2 million households were without power in 17 states as far west as Michigan. Nearly 2 million of those were in New York, where large swaths of lower Manhattan lost electricity and entire streets ended up underwater — as did seven subway tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn at one point, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.
The New York Stock Exchange was closed for a second day from weather, the first time that has happened since a blizzard in 1888. The shutdown of mass transit crippled a city where more than 8.3 million bus, subway and local rail trips are taken each day, and 800,000 vehicles cross bridges run by the transit agency.
Consolidated Edison said electricity in and around New York could take a week to restore.
"Everybody knew it was coming. Unfortunately, it was everything they said it was," said Sal Novello, a construction executive who rode out the storm with his wife, Lori, in the Long Island town of Lindenhurst, and ended up with 7 feet of water in the basement.
The scope of the storm’s damage wasn’t known yet. Though early predictions of river flooding in Sandy’s inland path were petering out, colder temperatures made snow the main product of Sandy’s slow march from the sea. Parts of the West Virginia mountains were blanketed with 2 feet of snow by Tuesday afternoon, and drifts 4 feet deep were reported at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
With Election Day a week away, the storm also threatened to affect the presidential campaign. Federal disaster response, always a dicey political issue, has become even thornier since government mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And poll access and voter turnout, both of which hinge upon how people are impacted by the storm, could help shift the outcome in an extremely close race.
As organized civilization came roaring back Tuesday in the form of emergency response, recharged cellphones and the reassurance of daylight, harrowing stories and pastiches emerged from Maryland north to Rhode Island in the hours after Sandy’s howling winds and tidal surges shoved water over seaside barriers, into low-lying streets and up from coastal storm drains.
Images from around the storm-affected areas depicted scenes reminiscent of big-budget disaster movies. In Atlantic City, N.J., a gaping hole remained where once a stretch of boardwalk sat by the sea. In Queens, N.Y., rubble from a fire that destroyed as many as 100 houses in an evacuated beachfront neighborhood jutted into the air at ugly angles against a gray sky. In heavily flooded Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, dozens of yellow cabs sat parked in rows, submerged in murky water to their windshields. At the ground zero construction site in lower Manhattan, seawater rushed into a gaping hole under harsh floodlights.
One of the most dramatic tales came from lower Manhattan, where a failed backup generator forced New York University’s Langone Medical Center to relocate more than 200 patients, including 20 babies from neonatal intensive care. Dozens of ambulances lined up in the rainy night and the tiny patients were gingerly moved out, some attached to battery-powered respirators as gusts of wind blew their blankets.
In Moonachie, N.J., 10 miles north of Manhattan, water rose to 5 feet within 45 minutes and trapped residents who thought the worst of the storm had passed. Mobile-home park resident Juan Allen said water overflowed a 2-foot wall along a nearby creek, filling the area with 2 to 3 feet of water within 15 minutes. "I saw trees not just knocked down but ripped right out of the ground," he said. "I watched a tree crush a guy’s house like a wet sponge."
In a measure of its massive size, waves on southern Lake Michigan rose to a record-tying 20.3 feet. High winds spinning off Sandy’s edges clobbered the Cleveland area early Tuesday, uprooting trees, closing schools and flooding major roads along Lake Erie.
Most along the East Coast, though, grappled with an experience like Bertha Weismann of Bridgeport, Conn.— frightening, inconvenient and financially problematic but, overall, endurable. Her garage was flooded and she lost power, but she was grateful. "I feel like we are blessed," she said. "It could have been worse."
The presidential candidates’ campaign maneuverings Tuesday revealed the delicacy of the need to look presidential in a crisis without appearing to capitalize on a disaster. President Barack Obama canceled a third straight day of campaigning, scratching events scheduled for Wednesday in swing-state Ohio, in Sandy’s path. Republican Mitt Romney resumed his campaign with plans for an Ohio rally billed as a "storm relief event."
And the weather posed challenges a week out for how to get everyone out to vote. On the hard-hit New Jersey coastline, a county elections chief said some polling places on barrier islands will be unusable and have to be moved.
"This is the biggest challenge we’ve ever had," said George R. Gilmore, chairman of the Ocean County Board of Elections.
By Tuesday afternoon, there were still only hints of the economic impact of the storm.
Forecasting firm IHS Global Insight predicted the storm will end up causing about $20 billion in damages and $10 billion to $30 billion in lost business. Another firm, AIR Worldwide, estimated losses up to $15 billion — big numbers probably offset by reconstruction and repairs that will contribute to longer-term growth.
"The biggest problem is not the first few days but the coming months," said Alan Rubin, an expert in nature disaster recovery.Next Page >
A state-by-state look at the East Coast superstorm
The massive storm that started out as Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast and morphed into a huge and problematic system, putting more than 8.5 million homes and businesses in the dark and causing at least 50 deaths in the U.S. Here’s a snapshot of what is happening, state by state.
The Long Island Sound flooded roads as the storm toppled trees and power lines. Three people died, including a man last seen swimming in heavy surf. Power outages: 594,000, down from a peak of more than 620,000.
Nearly all residents of flood-prone coastal communities in Kent County heeded calls to evacuate. The Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach resort communities were flooded. Power outages: 8,900, down from more than 45,000 at the peak.
High wind warnings and a lakeshore flood warning are in effect Tuesday and Wednesday in Chicago. City officials said Lake Shore Drive is expected to remain open.
A winter storm warning was in effect for three southeastern counties. Up to a foot of snow fell at high elevations along the West Virginia border.
Wind gusts topped 60 mph, shutting down the port of Portland and knocking out power to homes and businesses. Power outages: About 25,000, down from a peak of more than 90,000.
Floodwaters swamped touristy Ocean City. In western Maryland, up to two feet of snow tied up traffic. Two people were killed, including a man who died when a tree fell on a house in Pasadena. Power outages: More than 145,000, down from a peak of 290,000.
Strong winds and heavy surf led to mandatory evacuations in sections of coastal Dartmouth and Fall River and voluntary evacuations in other coastal communities. Power outages: 155,000, down from a peak of about 400,000.
Cargo shipping on the Great Lakes was at a standstill because of waves of up to 20 feet. Power outages: More than 150,000.
Politicians canceled visits to the presidential swing state on Monday. A construction worker checking on a job site in Lincoln, N.H., was killed in a landslide. Power outages: About 113,000, down from a peak of 210,000.
The center of the storm came ashore Monday evening near Atlantic City, which was cut off from the mainland by the storm surge along with other barrier islands, stranding residents who ignored warnings to evacuate. A tidal surge sent water into the streets of two northern towns, setting off a frantic rescue effort. There were six deaths. Power outages: 2.3 million, down from a peak of 2.7 million.
A record storm surge that was higher than predicted along with high winds damaged the electrical system and plunged millions of people into darkness. Utilities say it could be up to a week before power is fully restored. A fire burned 50 houses in one flooded section of Queens. There were 25 storm-related deaths, 18 of them in New York City. Power outages: 2.18 million, down from a peak of 2.2 million.
Parts of western North Carolina were under a winter storm warning, where a foot of snow had fallen in higher elevations. A woman who was pulled from the Atlantic after abandoning a tall ship was among two dead. Power outages: A high of 126,000, down to fewer than 400.
The Cleveland area and northeast Ohio were being slammed with rain and high winds. Snow was reported in some parts south of Cleveland and south of Columbus. A pair of car crashes on icy roads in northwest Ohio killed two people. Power outages: More than 250,000.
Wind and flooding closing more than 200 bridges and roads. Five people died, including an 8-year-old boy who was killed when a tree limb fell on him. Power outages: 933,000, down from a peak of 1.2 million.
The storm surge destroyed beach cottages and flooded businesses. Providence’s hurricane barrier performed well in one of its biggest tests. Power outages: About 80,000, down from more than 115,000 at the peak.
Nearly two feet of heavy, wet snow fell in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hikers coming off sections of the Appalachian Trial reported tangles of fallen trees and waist-deep drifts.
Winds knocked down trees and power lines, and schools were closed. Power outages: 3,550, down from a peak of more than 10,000.
Utilities brought in crews to help restore power after high winds and snow. A curfew was ordered Monday on Chincoteague Island. Two people died in storm-related traffic accidents. Power outages: More than 128,000, down from a peak of more than 180,000.
Federal and local governments were closed Tuesday along with the courts and public schools. Power outages: Nearly 9,000, down from a peak of about 25,000.
Some areas were buried under more than a foot of snow. A woman was killed in a traffic crash. Power outages: More than 268,000.
A village along Lake Michigan suggested residents evacuate Tuesday morning because of the possibility of dangerously high waves and flooding.
Copyright 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.