Even though, judged only by its maximum wind speeds below 100 mph, Sandy was only a Category 1 storm, but because of its huge size, its unusual track, and its interaction with other weather systems, it had the destructive power and impact of a Category 3 hurricane, the equivalent of Hurricane Katrina which flooded New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.
A flood gauge at Battery Park, at the southernmost end of Manhattan, measured 13.46 feet at high tide Monday night breaking the modern record for floods at that location, which was 10.02 feet set in September, 1960 during Hurricane Donna. As high tide approached Monday evening, the East River topped its seawall and flowed up Wall Street in a torrent that turned avenues into canals and intersections into lakes. The waters of the Hudson River, swelled by the tidal surge, rose over the banks on the West Side of Manhattan and spread as far east as 10th Avenue.
The high waters played havoc with the city’s electrical grid. A flooded transformer at the 14th Street power station on the East River shorted out in a spectacular explosion. Numerous other flood-related problems plunged all of Manhattan south of 34th Street, from river to river, into darkness Monday night. There were also widespread power outages in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, in addition to earlier, precautionary power shutdowns by Con Edison to protect its electrical equipment in normally flood-prone areas.
Throughout New Jersey on Monday night, at the peak of the storm, the sky was lit up by exploding transformers followed by the surrounding communities being thrown into darkness. In many areas throughout the region, overhead power lines were brought down by falling trees and branches.
The storm’s winds impacted the entire region. Hurricane-force winds extended 175 miles from the center of the storm. Tropical storm force winds were felt 485 miles from the center.
On Sunday morning, anticipating major flooding, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of all 370,00 residents of low lying coastal areas throughout the city, including the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, Coney Island, Red Hook, and Seagate in Brooklyn, and the Battery Park area on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Many but not all residents in those areas heeded Bloomberg’s warning. More than 3,600 people were in city shelters by the time the storm made landfall Monday.
In an unprecedented move, Bloomberg also ordered the New York City subway system to shut down the day before the storm arrived, so that their equipment could be moved to higher ground in order to avoid water damage due to the flooding of tunnels and low-lying repair yards and bus depots. He also announced the closing of the city’s public schools Monday, and ordered the precautionary closings of the flood-prone Holland Tunnel and Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the evacuation of all coastal and low lying communities in New Jersey. Utilities in the region brought in extra repair crews from halfway across the country, and local officials mobilized their emergency plans, calling on their experience from dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, which caused record damage throughout the region in August, 2011.
As the powerful storm came ashore just south of Atlantic City New Jersey late Monday afternoon, it hurled hurricane force gusts as far north as the coast of New England. Wind gusts in Long Island were as high as 95 mph.
As it moved west into Pennsylvania Tuesday, Sandy retained 45 mph winds which stirred up 20-foot high waves on Lake Michigan and flooding around Lake Erie. It then turned north and passed through New York State into Canada.
In many coastal areas, local residents resisted calls to evacuate, believing that warnings about the storm’s dangers were exaggerated and that they could safely ride out the storm in their homes. Governor Christie got into a public dispute with Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford Monday for advising residents to stay put as the storm barreled in, leaving a large number of city residents stranded by the fast-rising waters.
By that time, most of the roads near the coast were impassable, even for emergency vehicles, prompting Christie to exclaim, “There is no way for us to go get them,” referring to Atlantic City’s trapped residents.
He said, “For those of you who are on the barrier islands who decided it was better idea to wait this out than to evacuate, and for those elected officials who decided to ignore my admonition, this is now your responsibility. Evacuations are no longer possible.
“If you’re still able to hear me, we need you to hunker down and get to the highest point possible. I cannot in good conscience send rescuers in as the storm is about to hit.”
In the end, all of the low lying coastal areas along the Jersey coast, in New York City and Long Island were completely flooded, making major roads and city streets anywhere near the water completely impassable.
In the Rockaway peninsula, rising waters from the Atlantic Ocean came in from one side to meet waters surging in from Jamaica Bay on the other to completely submerge the area. Flooded local streets became so impassable that when a fire broke out in a row of buildings in the Breezy Point neighborhood Monday night, City firefighters and their equipment were unable to reach them. One of the homes destroyed belonged to Republican Congressman Bob Turner.
News video showed firefighters wading through waist-deep water or using inflatable boats to reach and rescue the victims who had disregarded Mayor Bloomberg’s evacuation order. The fire went to six alarms, and was fought by 200 firemen, but the blaze continued to spread out of control, driven by gusts of wind up to 70 mph, to engulf 80 buildings and burn all night.
On City Island, in the Bronx, firefighters were unable to reach a restaurant which caught fire Tuesday.
Monday night, power was lost at New York University hospital on First Avenue and 34th Street, adjacent to the East River due to flooding. The 200 patients in the hospital, including 20 babies in its neonatal unit, had to be evacuated when some of its backup generators then failed leaving it without enough power to keep all of its essential equipment running. Ambulances from around the city help transport the patients to other local hospitals including Mount Sinai and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.
Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn, which is in a flood zone, was also evacuated, and Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, not far from NYU hospital, lost power but was able to keep operating on emergency generators.
Nurses frantically kept patients alive with respirators operating on battery power as they gingerly carried them down darkened stairwells and into the howling gale outside.
Bloomberg said there were no reports of fatalities at any hospitals despite a loss of power at several of them during the storm.
The flooding from the storm Monday turned Manhattan into a true island, forcing the closing of most of its 11 major river crossings.
The Triborough Bridge was closed Monday evening after wind gusts on the bridge were clocked at nearly 100 mph. That left the Lincoln Tunnel as the only major remaining crossing point in or out of Manhattan.
The storm surge found its way into Ground Zero, as Hudson River water cascaded into the construction pit where the new World Trade Center tower is being built.
Further uptown, the boom of a construction crane near the top of an unfinished 90-story Manhattan luxury apartment skyscraper called One57 buckled Monday due to the force of Sandy’s winds. The boom dangled precariously high over 57th Street; forcing buildings and sidewalks in the immediate area to be evacuated for fear that it would fall.
The storm waters also devastated the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn, where some residents had tried to ride out the storm in their old wood-frame homes and bungalows. “It didn’t seem as if anyone had prepared their homes before the storm came in,” said Ned Berke, a local activist. By 5 p.m. Monday, he said, people were palpably nervous and were feebly trying to secure their property and nail boards on windows.
“By the time we realized, ‘shoot, this place is going to flood,’ it was too late,” Berke said. “It was too dangerous to try to go outside.’’
At high tide, the ocean water funneled through the bay, ripping apart a 100-year-old esplanade. Sailboats were cut from their moorings, and some sank. Storefronts filled with water and mud. Berk described Avenue Z, the main local shopping street, as “basically a fish tank,” filled to the waist with water. Cars were submerged, leaving them coated with mud.
Power was knocked out for 8.2 million people from Maine to the Carolinas. Power was still out Tuesday for 2.4 million customers in New Jersey, 900,000 in Long Island, 600,000 in New York City, 600,000 in Connecticut, and 180,000 in Westchester County, just north of New York City. Tens of thousands of people in Lakewood, New Jersey lost power during the storm. Many power lines were downed due to fallen trees, and local officials warned that full restoration of service in some areas could take several days. Schools were closed and everything came to a virtual standstill in town.
On Tuesday, the Long Island Power Authority held a conference call with communal leaders and officials to discuss restoring power for the Five Towns and Rockaway neighborhoods. They predicted that power will be out until at least Shabbos.
In coastal regions of New Jersey, on Long Island and Connecticut, electrical power was out to more than 80% of households and business. Major highways were cleared immediately after the storm winds and flood water subsided, but many local roads across the region remained blocked by fallen trees and other storm debris. In Moonachie, New Jersey, water from the flooded Hackensack River required the rescue of about 8000 people. All local streets in Hoboken, New Jersey remained closed to traffic Tuesday because there was no power for the traffic lights.
Coastal cities, such as Long Beach on Long Island and Sea Bright, New Jersey, were the hardest hit by water flooding inland due to the storm surge. The storm surge poured over the Long Beach boardwalk and sea water flowed like a river through the streets of the resort and retirement town. Fortunately, before the bridge connecting the town to Far Rockaway was closed and the town lost all electrical power and phone communications, students at the Mesifta of Long Beach were evacuated.
Governor Christie said Tuesday, “The level of devastation at the Jersey Shore is unthinkable. It is beyond anything I thought I’d ever see. Terrible…. No question in my mind, the devastation that happened to New Jersey is beyond what happened to anyone else.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, surveying the extent of the damage from Sandy, noted that cities like New York may now have to rethink their emergency preparations and make basic changes to their infrastructure to make them less vulnerable to such natural disasters. In light of the widespread power outages due to fallen trees, many suburban communities may now reconsider putting their power lines underground.
All three New York metropolitan area airports, as well as other airports in the region, were forced to shut down, resulting in the cancellation of 15,000 scheduled airline flights. LaGuardia airport was damaged by the flood waters, further delaying its reopening after the storm passed.
Federal, state and local government workers in the DC area were again told to stay home from work on Monday and Tuesday. The airports in Philadelphia and the Washington DC area remained closed. Mass transit systems were shut down from Washington DC as far north as Boston and Amtrak canceled its service to the Northeast.
Virginia Governor Robert McDonnel noted the odd combination of situations created by the storm across the state. “You’ve got flooding in southeast Virginia. You’ve got a blizzard in western and southwest Virginia. And you’ve got high winds and heavy rain in Northern Virginia.”
A sailing ship built in 1962 as a replica of the 18th century H.M.S. Bounty was caught in the storm and sank off the North Carolina coast Monday. The Coast Guard said the 180-foot three-masted ship went down near the Outer Banks after being battered by 18-foot-high seas and thrashed by 40-m.p.h. winds. Fourteen members of the crew were rescued despite the heavy seas. The body of one crew member was recovered and another crew member was listed as missing.
President Obama signed federal emergency declarations for 10 states and the District of Columbia, permitting state officials to begin making requests for federal assistance, including manpower and equipment.
He canceled all campaign events through Wednesday, remaining at the White House to oversee the federal response to the storm. Obama told reporters he instructed federal agencies to be proactive in responding to the disaster. “There’s no excuse for inaction at this point,” he said. “My message to the federal government: No bureaucracy. No red tape.”
He also urged ordinary people in the area impacted by the storm to look out for each other, particularly the elderly.
Obama held a conference call Tuesday with 13 state governors, seven city mayors and administration officials to discuss recovery efforts.
Obama said he told the state and local officials, “We are going to do everything we can to get resources to you and make sure that any unmet need is identified. If they are getting no for an answer from the federal government, they can call me personally at the White House.”
Bloomberg and other officials said they expected their jurisdictions to be ready for Election Day next Tuesday, though neither provided details about what challenges they might face. Christie, who had been floated as a potential GOP presidential candidate and has campaigned on Romney’s behalf, offered words of praise Tuesday for Obama’s efforts during the storm and scoffed at speculation about Sandy’s potential impact on the election.
When asked by reporters whether he said anything about next week’s election, Christie said, “I spoke to the president three times yesterday. He’s been incredibly supportive and helpful to our state, and not once did he bring up the election…. If he’s not bringing it up, I’m certainly not going to bring it up.”
Before the storm arrived, officials of the New York City subway system and the Port Authority took measures at train stations to try to protect the switches and signals on the tracks from the flooding, but the scale of the storm surge overpowered them, resulting in substantial damage. The morning after the storm, Governor Christie said that the PATH train system which connects northern New Jersey to Manhattan would be out of commission at least for the rest of the week.
In New York City, most major roads and bridges were reopened Tuesday. However, the Holland Tunnel, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Battery underpass at the southern tip of Manhattan, which connects the West Side Highway to the FDR Drive and seven subway tunnels under the East River remained flooded and had to wait longer to open.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the city’s public schools remained closed, as were most private schools. The New York Stock Exchange reopened Wednesday after being closed for two days. Limited city bus service resumed Tuesday, but Mayor Bloomberg reported that the damage to the subway system was extensive, and would take longer to repair. In some Manhattan subway stations, flood waters were 4 feet deep. Bloomberg expressed the hope that subway service on at least on some of the lines would resume in 3 or 4 days, but would offered no guarantees.
Joseph Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said that the damage to the subway system was the greatest in its 108-year history.
As bad as the damage from Hurricane Sandy was, it could have been much worse. Fortunately, the highly accurate weather reports which first identified the threat posed by Sandy to the East Coast more than a week before it arrived. The only surprise was that the storm unexpectedly picked up speed a few hours before it roared across the Jersey coast at 30 mph Monday afternoon.
The forecasts gave state and local officials plenty of time to issue warnings, make preparations and put emergency plans into effect. The public used the days of advance warning to stock up on emergency supplies for their homes, including bottled water, canned food, batteries and flashlights, without causing mob scenes at local stores.
The advance warning helped to reduce the number of fatalities due to the storm. The first one reported in New York City took place in Flushing, Queens, where a tree fell on a house around 7 p.m. Monday, trapping a 29-year-old man underneath and killing him. On Tuesday, the total death toll due to the storm in the Northeast was put at 38, including 17 people in New York State, 5 in Pennsylvania and 4 in New Jersey. Many of the casualties were due to fallen trees.
Even though the loss of life was relatively low, Hurricane Sandy will certainly go down in the record books as perhaps the most damaging storm ever to hit New York City and the Northeast. Its unique characteristics will be studied by meteorologists and public safety experts for many years to come.