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Death toll rises in wake of Hurricane Sandy

Oct. 30, 2012 at 5:30 a.m.

Damage caused by a fire at Breezy Point is shown in the New York City borough of Queen. The fire destroyed between 80 and 100 houses Monday night in the flooded neighborhood. More than 190 firefighters have contained the six-alarm blaze fire in the Breezy Point section, but they are still putting out some pockets of fire. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

NEW YORK (AP) — Millions of people from Maine to the Carolinas awoke Tuesday without electricity, and an eerily quiet New York City was all but closed off by car, train and air as superstorm Sandy steamed inland, still delivering punishing wind and rain. The U.S. death toll climbed to 35, many of the victims killed by falling trees.

The full extent of the damage in New Jersey, where the storm roared ashore Monday night with hurricane-force winds of 80 mph, was unclear. Police and fire officials, some with their own departments flooded, fanned out to rescue hundreds.

“We are in the midst of urban search and rescue. Our teams are moving as fast as they can,” Gov. Chris Christie said. “The devastation on the Jersey Shore is some of the worst we’ve ever seen. The cost of the storm is incalculable at this point.”

More than 8.2 million people across the East were without power. Airlines canceled more than 15,000 flights around the world, and it could be days before the mess is untangled and passengers can get where they’re going.

The storm also disrupted the presidential campaign with just a week to go before Election Day.

President Barack Obama canceled a third straight day of campaigning, scratching events scheduled for Wednesday in swing state Ohio, which got clobbered by Sandy’s winds as the storm pushed west. Republican Mitt Romney resumed his campaign, but with plans to turn a political rally in Ohio into a “storm relief event.”

Lower Manhattan, which includes Wall Street, was among the hardest-hit areas after the storm sent a nearly 14-foot surge of seawater, a record, coursing over its seawalls and highways and into low-lying streets.

Water cascaded into the gaping, unfinished construction pit at the World Trade Center, and the New York Stock Exchange was closed for a second day, the first time that has happened because of weather since the Blizzard of 1888.

A huge fire destroyed as many as 100 houses in a flooded beachfront neighborhood in Queens on Tuesday, forcing firefighters to undertake daring rescues. Three people were injured.

A downtown hospital, New York University’s Tisch, evacuated 200 patients after its backup generator failed. About 20 babies from the neonatal intensive care unit were carried down staircases and were given battery-powered respirators.

A construction crane that collapsed in the high winds on Monday still dangled precariously 74 floors above the streets of midtown Manhattan. And on Staten Island, a tanker ship wound up beached on the shore.

With water standing in two major commuter tunnels and seven subway tunnels under the East River, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was unclear when the nation’s largest transit system would be rolling again. It shut down Sunday night ahead of the storm.

Joseph Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said the damage was the worst in the 108-year history of the New York subway.

The saltwater surge inundated subway signals, switches and the electrified third rails, and covered tracks with sludge. Workers began pumping the water out and will ultimately have to walk the hundreds of miles of track to inspect it.

Millions of more fortunate New Yorkers surveyed the damage as dawn broke, their city brought to an extraordinary standstill.

“Oh, Jesus. Oh, no,” Faye Schwartz said she looked over her neighborhood in Brooklyn, where cars were scattered like leaves.

Reggie Thomas, a maintenance supervisor at a prison near the overflowing Hudson River, emerged from an overnight shift, a toothbrush in his front pocket, to find his Honda with its windows down and a foot of water inside. The windows automatically go down when the car is submerged to free drivers.

“It’s totaled,” Thomas said with a shrug. “You would have needed a boat last night.”

Most major tunnels and bridges in New York were closed, as were schools, Broadway theaters and the metropolitan area’s three main airports, LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark.

“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.

Around midday, Sandy was about 120 miles east of Pittsburgh, pushing westward with winds of 45 mph, and was expected to make a turn into New York State on Tuesday night. Although weakening as it goes, the storm will continue to bring heavy rain and flooding, said Daniel Brown of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

In a measure of the storm’s immense size and power, 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, cutting power to hundreds of thousands, closing schools and flooding major roads along Lake Erie.

And In Portland, Maine, gusts topping 60 mph scared away several cruise ships and prompted officials to close the port.

The death toll climbed rapidly, and included 17 victims in New York State — 10 of them in New York City — along with five dead in Pennsylvania and three in New Jersey. Sandy also killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Eastern Seaboard.

In New Jersey, Sandy destroyed several blocks of Atlantic City’s world-famous boardwalk and wrecked several other boardwalks up and down the coast. A Seaside Heights roller coaster was left partially submerged in the ocean.

A huge swell of water swept over the small New Jersey town of Moonachie, near the Hackensack River, and authorities struggled to rescue about 800 people, some of them living in a trailer park. And in neighboring Little Ferry, water suddenly started gushing out of storm drains overnight, submerging a road under 4 feet of water and swamping houses.

Police and fire officials used boats and trucks to reach the stranded.

“I looked out and the next thing you know, the water just came up through the grates. It came up so quickly you couldn’t do anything about it. If you wanted to move your car to higher ground you didn’t have enough time,” said Little Ferry resident Leo Quigley, who with his wife was taken to higher ground by boat.

Jersey City was closed to cars because traffic lights were out, and Hoboken, just over the Hudson River from Manhattan, dealt with major flooding.

Sandy closed in on the Northeast a hurricane, converging with a cold-weather system that turned it into a monstrous hybrid of rain, 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.

While the hurricane’s 80 mph winds registered as only a Category 1 on a scale of five, it packed the lowest barometric pressure on record in the Northeast, giving it terrific energy to push water inland.

In New York, the construction crane atop a 1,000-foot, $1.5 billion luxury high-rise in midtown Manhattan dangled for a second day while authorities tried to figure out how to secure it. Thousands were ordered to leave 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.”

An explosion Monday night at a substation for Consolidated Edison, the main utility service New York City, knocked out power to about 310,000 customers in Manhattan.

“It sounded like the Fourth of July,” Stephen Weisbrot said from his 10th-floor apartment.

In Baltimore, fire officials said four unoccupied rowhouses 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 part of Interstate 68 on slippery Big Savage Mountain.

“It’s like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs up here,” said Bill Wiltson, a Maryland State Police dispatcher.

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