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October 30, 2012

Now a cyclone, it kills nine, cuts power

A massive storm delivered a calamitous blow to the most populous region of the United States Monday night, paralyzing the nation's epicenters of power and commerce, plunging smaller coastal communities into crisis and killing at least nine people. More than 3 million homes and businesses, including the lower third of Manhattan, were without power.

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. – A massive storm delivered a calamitous blow to the most populous region of the United States Monday night, paralyzing the nation's epicenters of power and commerce, plunging smaller coastal communities into crisis and killing at least nine people. More than 3 million homes and businesses, including the lower third of Manhattan, were without power.

After days of dire warnings and bustling preparations, Sandy crashed ashore a little after 8 p.m. EDT. Shortly before midnight, the storm was near Philadelphia, moving northwest at 18 mph and still carrying sustained winds of 75 mph, according to the National Weather Service.

Turbulent days were ahead: In New Jersey, the city of Hoboken had been breached by the Hudson River; in West Virginia and Maryland, a blizzard was under way; in New York seawater was pouring into subway tunnels, exploding transformers lit up the dreary sky and 300 calls were being placed to 911 every minute.

"These are not games," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "Things have gotten tough. But we're going to get through this together."

Sandy first passed over land just south of Atlantic City, N.J. But with this storm, the precise location of landfall didn't matter.

Sandy was a freak event – a late-season hurricane, initially, hemmed in by weather bands, gobbling up the energy of the Gulf Stream while growing into a ragged, 1,000-mile-wide storm.

By the time it made landfall, authorities had changed Sandy's formal description from a hurricane to a "post-tropical cyclone," a messier, non-tropical weather event. The scientific distinctions seemed lost on the storm. As Sandy grew, so did its power to push a wall of seawater onto shore – with such force that some rivers were expected to run backward.

The result was a plodding ogre of a storm, powerful more because of its scope than its sheer strength. The metropolitan areas of Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York City were most immediately in the crosshairs, but Sandy cast tropical storm-strength winds from the Carolinas to Maine. Hurricane-force winds stretched from Virginia to Massachusetts.

Because of its size, Sandy is more than a coastal event. Officials predicted a blizzard in the West Virginia mountains, 33-foot waves in Lake Michigan and high winds in Indiana. There were formal government warnings of one variety or another in 23 states, and 60 million people – nearly one in five Americans – could feel the storm before the end of the week.

Maryland was getting pounded on both ends of the state. There were blizzard warnings to the west, with some areas expected to receive as much as 2 feet of snow, and flood warnings for the area around the Chesapeake Bay, with storm surges as high as 4 feet forecast for today.

"This is going to be a long night," Gov. Martin O'Malley said.

At least nine people have been killed, several by falling trees.

In North Carolina, a replica of an iconic British transport vessel sank in churning seas, killing at least one crew member. The HMS Bounty, built for the 1962 Marlon Brando film "Mutiny on the Bounty," was featured in several other films and welcomed by large crowds at numerous ports. It was en route to St. Petersburg, Fla., when it began to take on water southeast of Cape Hatteras. One crew member's body was recovered and 15 others were rescued by Coast Guard helicopters. The 63-year-old captain was still missing.

Government officials implored the public to take precautions and heed evacuation orders.

"Don't be stupid," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told his constituents.

"There will be people who will die," O'Malley said.

The normally by-the-books National Weather Service delivered this message to those who were resisting calls to evacuate: "THINK ABOUT YOUR LOVED ONES. THINK ABOUT THE RESCUE/RECOVERY TEAMS WHO WILL RESCUE YOU IF YOU ARE INJURED OR RECOVER YOUR REMAINS IF YOU DO NOT SURVIVE."

Landfall came with darkness on the coast. The last flickers of daylight had revealed one ominous image after another: Firefighters in Long Island wading through 3 feet of water to get to a house fully engulfed in flames. Chunks of the fabled Atlantic City boardwalk, the oldest in America, floating past avenues whose names are on the Monopoly board Pacific, Ventnor, Atlantic.

White-capped waves barked at the marble-stepped foot of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and splashed over park benches at Stuyvesant Cove Park near New York City's East Village. A portion of Wall Street was under water, and fire stations in New York and New Jersey were being evacuated – one, in Manhattan, by boat. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Times Square, the monuments on the National Mall in Washington – all were deserted.

Those snapshots portended a week of misery in the Northeast, federal authorities warned. The storm was expected to stall near Philadelphia, then curl slowly toward the north and the east – strafing Pennsylvania today, New York state on Wednesday, New England and Canada on Friday and Saturday.

After a tidal surge as tall as 12 feet inundates coastal areas, freshwater flooding could plague other pockets of the Northeast for days. The tale of the next few days will likely be water, water everywhere – from the sky as rain, hail and snow; from the ocean, surging in rivers and back bays with nowhere to go. Power outages could linger for days.

"This is a long-duration event," said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

The 3 million-plus homes and businesses without power included half a million in New Jersey. Consolidated Edison, the New York power company, intentionally shut off power to more than 5,000 customers in Lower Manhattan to protect equipment.

The federal government announced that its offices would be closed again today, and analysts warned that damage could top $10 billion.

In Midtown Manhattan, a crane attached to a luxury high-rise called One57 partially collapsed, and was dangling 1,000 feet above West 57th Street. One57 is scheduled to be New York City's tallest building with residences; its penthouse sold last spring for $90 million. By Monday night, pieces of the crane began smashing some of the windows, sprinkling glass onto the street and forcing the evacuation of a nearby hotel.

Hundreds of thousands of people had evacuated their homes – and many had declined.

With her apartment key dangling on a lanyard around her neck, Venus Jones Johnson trudged through a driving rain to a shelter at a Philadelphia high school. Johnson, 45, lives alone in a rented room.

"I kept hearing about this big disaster headed our way, so I figured I should find a better place," said Johnson, her winter coat slick with rain.

Sandy also wreaked havoc with the nation's busiest airspace. Airlines canceled more than 8,900 flights Sunday and Monday, and another 4,800 for Tuesday. Philadelphia International Airport, La Guardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport were hit particularly hard, and authorities warned that delays and cancellations could linger until early next week. Travel snarls were expected to ripple around the world.

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