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Water, fire and darkness: NYC after the superstorm

- Associated Press - Monday, October 29, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City awakened Tuesday to a flooded subway system, shuttered financial markets and hundreds of thousands of people without power a day after a wall of seawater and high winds slammed into the city, destroying buildings and flooding tunnels.

Scenes of the damage were everywhere. At least 50 flooded homes in Queens caught fire and were destroyed. A hospital removed patients on stretchers and 20 babies from neonatal intensive care, some on respirators operating on battery power.

Where usually bustling crowds and traffic jams streamed through sidewalks, streets and subways, they were largely empty. And high above midtown, the broken boom of a crane continued to dangle precariously over a neighborhood.

"We knew that this was going to be a very dangerous storm, and the storm has met our expectations," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "This is a once-in-a-long-time storm."

The storm was once Hurricane Sandy but combined with two wintry systems to become a huge hybrid storm whose center smashed ashore late Monday in New Jersey. New York City was perfectly positioned to absorb the worst of its storm surge — a record 13 feet.

Water lapped over the seawall in Battery Park City, flooding rail yards, subway tracks, tunnels and roads. Rescue workers floated bright orange rafts down flooded downtown streets, while police officers rolled slowly down the street with loudspeakers telling people to go home.

In Queens, nearly 200 firefighters tried to contain an enormous blaze that consumed 50 homes in the Breezy Point neighborhood. They had to use a boat to make rescues, firefighters told WABC-TV. They climbed an awning to reach about 25 trapped people and take them down to a boat.

Officials weren't immediately able to pin down the cause of the blaze.

The rains and howling winds left a crane hanging off a luxury high-rise in midtown Manhattan, causing the evacuation of hundreds from a posh hotel and other buildings. Inspectors were climbing 74 flights of stairs to examine the crane hanging from the $1.5 billion building.

After a backup generator failed, New York University's Tisch Hospital began evacuating more than 200 patients to other facilities, including 20 babies from neonatal intensive care, some of them on respirators operating on battery power.

Without power, the hospital had no elevator service, meaning patients had to be carefully carried down staircases and outside into the weather. Gusts of wind blew their blankets as nurses held IVs and other equipment.

About 670,000 homes and businesses were without power late Monday in the city and suburban Westchester County.

"This will be one for the record books," said John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations at Consolidated Edison. "This will be the largest storm-related outage in our history."

The facade of a four-story Manhattan building in the Chelsea neighborhood crumbled and collapsed suddenly, leaving the lights, couches, cabinets and desks inside visible from the street. No one was hurt, although some of the falling debris hit a car.

The city shut all three of its airports, its subways, schools, stock exchanges, Broadway theaters and closed several bridges and tunnels Monday as the weather worsened. By evening, a record 13-foot storm surge was threatening Manhattan's southern tip and utilities deliberately darkened part of the borough to avoid storm damage.

"It's really a complete ghost town now," said Stephen Weisbrot, from a powerless 10th-floor apartment.

It could be several days to a week before all residents who lost power during the storm get their lights back, Miksad said.

Water surged into two major commuter tunnels — the Brooklyn Battery and the Queens Midtown — along with seven subway tunnels under the East River. The agency is assessing damage and will restore the system as quickly as it can, MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said.

On Tuesday, the New York Stock Exchange was to be closed again — the first time it's been closed for two consecutive days due to weather since 1888, when a blizzard struck the city.

At 4 a.m., few people were out on the streets. Times Square was lit but empty of people. Round-the-clock restaurants and bars that would have been wrapping up after last call were closed. Only a handful of taxis plied the streets — but there was an abundance of emergency and police vehicles.

Uptown, windows of apartments and businesses glowed. But to cross through midtown was to be swallowed by darkness. Only a few emergency or backup lights appeared in buildings.

Late Monday, an explosion at a substation at 14th Street and FDR Drive contributed to the power outages. No one was injured, and ConEd did not know whether the explosion was caused by flooding or by flying debris.

Earlier in the day, another 1 million customers lost power in New York City, the northern suburbs and coastal Long Island, where floodwaters swamped cars, downed trees and put neighborhoods under water.

At least five people were killed in the New York City area, most by falling trees.

On coastal Long Island, floodwaters swamped cars, downed trees and put neighborhoods under water as beachfronts and fishing villages bore the brunt of the storm. A police car was lost rescuing 14 people from the popular resort Fire Island.

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Associated Press writers Karen Matthews, Colleen Long and Deepti Hajela in New York, Larry Neumeister, Frank Eltman and Meghan Barr on Long Island, and Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Md., contributed to this report.

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