NEW YORK — President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in the New York City area Tuesday as Superstorm Sandy pounded the East Coast, killing at least 38 people, sweeping homes into the ocean, flooding large swaths of coastal areas, crippling public transit, and leaving millions without power.
The storm weakened as it moved further inland but forecasters still warned of gale-force winds and flooding along the densely-populated coast, where a massive fire broke out in New York City and a levee broke in New Jersey. At least 38 people were killed in the United States and Canada as the storm roared ashore late Monday, pounding several major cities with heavy rain and hurricane-force winds that toppled trees and ripped down power lines.
President Obama declared a ‘major disaster’ had hit the states of New York and New Jersey, an order that cleared the way for federal grants and loans to help storm victims acquire temporary housing and repair damage. Seawater coursed between the iconic skyscrapers of New York’s financial district in lower Manhattan, flooding subways and road tunnels and shorting out the power grid, leaving a half-million households and businesses in the dark.
Further south, the sea surged over vast swathes of the eastern seaboard, turning coastal cities into ghost towns as the high winds grounded flights and shut down rail links, public transport and government offices.
The catastrophe completely overshadowed the US election race, forcing a halt to campaigning a week before Americans were due to go to the polls to choose between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.
Hurricane Sandy had killed 67 people as it tore through the Caribbean, and reports of more deaths began to arrive after it made landfall at 8:00 pm (0000 GMT) in New Jersey and began to wreak havoc in the United States. A massive fire destroyed at least 50 homes in Breezy Point, a seaside community in Queens, New York. Firefighters had difficulty reaching the blaze due to the severe weather. The cause of the fire was not immediately known. Authorities had ordered hundreds of thousands of residents in areas from New England to North Carolina to evacuate their homes and seek shelter, but many chose to stay on, to the frustration of police and local officials.
Falling trees tore down power cables, plunging what weather experts said were millions of homes into darkness, while storm warnings cut rail links and marooned tens of thousands of travellers at airports across the region. The hurricane sent a record storm surge of 13.7 feet into lower Manhattan, flooding seven major subway tunnels used by hundreds of thousands of daily commuters and swamping cars in the financial district. “The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night,” city transport director Joseph Lhota said early Tuesday.
Firefighters meanwhile struggled to contain a massive blaze in the Queens borough that destroyed more than 50 homes, and in northern New Jersey police in boats pulled residents from second-storey windows after a levee broke.
Hours earlier, a power sub-station exploded in a burst of light captured by amateur photographers as a massive blackout left much of Manhattan, and some 500,000 homes across New York City, in darkness.
The floodwaters had begun to recede early Tuesday, but the Con Edison power company said it could take a week to completely restore power.
Disaster estimating firm Eqecat forecast that Sandy would affect more than 60 million Americans, a fifth of the population, and cause up to $20 billion in damage. Refineries closed and major arteries such as New York’s Holland Tunnel were shut to traffic. The operator of two major New Jersey nuclear plants said they might have to be closed, threatening half of the state’s power supply.
The New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and the futures markets in Chicago were closed for Monday and Tuesday, along with federal government offices and the entire Amtrak rail network on the eastern seaboard. Obama urged Americans to heed local evacuation orders as he stepped off the campaign trail and spent the day in the White House helping to coordinate the response to the disaster. “The election will take care of itself next week,” Obama said. “Right now, our number one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives... and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track.”
Both the Democratic incumbent and his Republican rival Romney were keen to display resolute leadership in the face of the storm, given the memory of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Romney also cancelled some campaign appearances.
Former president George W Bush was widely seen as having bungled the handling of Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. The failure of authorities in the ensuing emergency response tainted the rest of his presidency.
The United Nations, which closed its headquarters in New York on Monday, has again cancelled all meetings and conferences scheduled for Tuesday because of the huge damage and disruptions.
In an attempt to lessen damage from saltwater to the subway system and the electrical network beneath the city’s financial district, New York City’s main utility cut power to about 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan. But a far wider swath of the city was hit with blackouts caused by flooding and transformer explosions.
The surge hit New York City hours after a construction crane atop a luxury high-rise collapsed in the wind and dangled precariously 74 floors above the street. Forecasters said the wind at the top of the building may have been close to 95 mph.
Airlines cancelled more than 12,000 flights, disrupting the plans of travellers all over the world.
Storm damage was projected at $10 billion to $20 billion, meaning it could prove to be one of the costliest natural disasters in US history.
Ten deaths were reported in New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Some of the victims were killed by falling trees. At least one death was blamed on the storm in Canada.
“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. “The energy of the storm surge is off the charts, basically.”
In Maryland, at least 100 feet of a fishing pier at the beach resort of Ocean City was destroyed, and Gov. Martin O’Malley said there would be devastating flooding from the swollen Chesapeake Bay.
“There will be people who die and are killed in this storm,” he said.
Meanwhile, two US nuclear power plants were shut down early Tuesday in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, but the plant operators stressed there were no risks to the public.
New Jersey’s main power company PSEG Nuclear shut down its Salem 1 unit on the Delaware River, saying most of its water circulation pumps had been rendered unusable ‘due to weather impacts’.
PSEG said it manually shut down the 1,175 MW unit, but said there were “no issues” in the shutdown and the facility was “currently stable.”
The Salem 2 unit was already offline for maintenance when the storm hit, and PSEG said another nearby nuclear unit, Hope Creek, remains operating at full power.
In New York, power generator Entergy shut down a unit of its Indian Point nuclear facility “due to external electrical grid issues.”
Another unit remained at full power, and Entergy said on Twitter that there was “no risk” to the public or company employees.
Late Monday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it was monitoring all plants in the US northeast as Sandy pushed up water levels in rivers and bays, which are crucial for cooling operations at the facilities.
The Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, which was in a regularly scheduled outage when the storm hit, set off an alert when floodwaters exceeded a threshold set for its water intake facilities.
Wet snow and high winds spinning off the edge of Superstorm Sandy spread blizzard conditions over parts of West Virginia and neighbouring Appalachian states Tuesday, shutting one interstate as trucks and cars bogged down and knocking out power to many.
The National Weather Service said a foot and more of snow was reported in lower elevations of West Virginia, where most towns and roads are. High elevations in the mountains were getting more than two feet and a blizzard warning for parts of the state was in effect until Wednesday afternoon.
More than 205,000 customers in West Virginia were without power early Tuesday. In Elkins, a city of about 7,000 people, power went out across town before dawn and the only lights were from passing snow plows as heavy, wet flakes piled up to about 8 inches.
Staff Reporter from Islamabad adds: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has directed Pakistan’s Ambassador to US Sherry Rehman and Counsel General in New York to reach out to Pakistani expatriates to tell them to stay vigilant and follow the safety precautions laid out by the US authorities after the devastation caused by the storm.
Accordingly, Pakistan Embassy and other missions a number of steps have been taken to stay in touch with expatriate Pakistanis in the affected States.
The Embassy and the Consulate General have approached key Pakistani community members through phone and email and urged them to remain vigilant and take all necessary safety precautions as laid out by their respective district governments and to approach the nearest emergency centre whenever needed. According to the decision of the US Government to declare a State of emergency in Washington and to close all offices, the Embassy has also been closed.
However, all the concerned staff is on standby to respond to any contingency if required.
Obama declares disaster as nature devastates US East Coast