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Death and destruction: US begins clean-up after Sandy causes chaos

  • Interactive map: the disaster zone 
  • 17 people killed in New York
  • Millions likely to be without power for days
  • Nuclear power plant "not a danger"
  • Obama to visit New York disaster zone

The president pulled an all-nighter. But as the northeast corner of the US shook itself out of a hurricane-induced daze today, there was a sense that Sandy's catastrophic winds might have wrought much more damage – but that the billions worth it did in eight states was quite enough, thank-you.

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Daylight reveals Sandy's wrath

Americans woke to scenes of destruction wrought by monster storm Sandy after it smashed into the eastern United States.

The eye of the storm was elsewhere – heading for Canada. But the focus of emergency relief attention was the Manhattan pressure-cooker, where traffic bridges that lash the island to the rest of the US were re-opening, but slowly; and all local mass transit and New York city's three airports remained closed.

Not since the blackouts of 2003 – almost a decade back – were the sheath-like towers of the city's iconic skyline etched in such deep black, as opposed to their customary high-wattage glitter.

"We expected an unprecedented storm impact in New York City," mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "That's what we got."

Amidst torrential rain and as much as 50cm of snow in high-country blizzards, the dawn tally was gob-smacking in a storm path sweeping from the New Jersey coast and up through New York state and central Pennsylvania.


There were almost 40 storm related deaths – 18 of them in New York, including two boys hit by a falling tree in suburban Westchester.

Elsewhere, the dead included a 90-year-old woman and a firefighter killed in separate incidents in Connecticut; two adults dead in storm-related traffic accidents in Maryland; and a 40-year-old woman killed while driving in storm-induced snow in West Virginia.

Now 8.5 million homes in 16 states and the District of Columbia are without power – including 250,000 in the southern half of Manhattan, where a series of spectacular explosions at an electrical facility doused the lights; and in the entire cities of Newark and Jersey City.

A spokesman for Con Edison says the challenge to restore power in the city that never sleeps is "unprecedented in scope." Initial predictions that power would be back in 2-3 days quickly stretched to 3-4 days … and then to 'maybe' 4-5 days.

There was general cause for anxiety, with flood-warnings still in place for low-lying coastal areas that are home to hundreds of thousands. But perhaps the greatest worry, if only until there has been sufficient public communication to shut it down as an issue, is the safety of the country's oldest nuclear power plant – on the New Jersey coast, at Oyster Creek, 95km east of Philadelphia.

An abnormal storm surge of almost 2m reportedly pushed water levels at the plant, 'potentially' impacting a "water intake structure" that circulates cooling water through the plant's repository of spent fuel rods, according to a spokesman for the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The most important message I have for them is that America is with you.

Barack Obama

Exelon Corp, the operator of the 43-year-old plant, insists there is no danger to equipment and no threat to public health or safety – and that the formal 'alert' notice was second from the bottom of a list of four that must be issued in the case of such incidents.

More than 80 cheek-by-jowl homes were gutted by fire at Breezy Point, in the New York borough of Queens, before hundreds of firemen managed to bring the blaze under control.

Almost 6000 flights were cancelled on Tuesday – on top of as many as 10,000 scrapped on Monday. Thereby, last year's Hurricane Irene was edged out of the record books for the greatest number if US flights disrupted by a weather event.

Comparisons with the failed emergency services response to Hurricane Katrina, in 2005 on the watch of former Republican President George Bush, were inevitable and, it has to be said of the first 72 hours, were a striking contrast.

So much so that when a reported suggested to New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a stout defender of Mitt Romney and long reckoned as a possible vice presidential running mate for the Republican challenger for the presidency, Christie made a surprise lurch across the political spectrum to praise President Barack Obama.

“I have to say, the administration, the president, himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far,” Christie told ABC's Good Morning America. “We have a great partnership with them.”

Christie spoke of how Obama had called him Monday night, offering to help in any way he could. As a result, New Jersey had been declared a major disaster area, for which federal funding would flow.

Smacking down a suggestion that he should invite Romney to New Jersey for a post-hurricane photo-op, Christie instead gave Obama another smooch - “I want to thank the president personally for his personal attention to this.”

With Obama's disaster declarations still in force in New York, adjacent Long Island and in parts of New Jersey, the New York Stock Exchange announced plans to open as usual at 9.30am on Wednesday – but it was testing its contingency plan as well, “just in case.”

The evacuation at the height of the storm of more than 200 patients from the NYU Langone Medical Center, in Manhattan, when backup power system failed was managed without incident. Backup power reportedly failed at another city hospital – but after patients had been removed to other facilities.

New York City officials expected the Manhattan, Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Ed Koch Queensboro Bridges to reopen late on Tuesday morning. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and Queens-Midtown Tunnel remain closed and the Lincoln Tunnel was open throughout the storm.

As cars floated down city streets late on Monday, the storm surge poured water into the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, flooding it “from end to end” only hours after State Governor Mario Cuomo had ordered it closed to traffic. Water also seeped into seven subway tunnels under the East River.

“In 108 years, our employees have never faced a challenge like the one that confronts us now,” Mr Joseph Lhota, head of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority told reporters. “Our electrical systems, our alarm systems, tell us when there's water down there –basically shut off in relatively quick fashion. They would only shut off if there was water down there.”

Governer Cuomo promised that bus services would be back by 5pm Tuesday.

As superstorm Sandy weakens – its winds have dropped to 65mph as it spews torrential rain and blizzard-like snow on a swathe through Pennsylvania and towards the Great Lakes – President Obama told its victim: “America is with you.”

 “Obviously this is something that is heartbreaking for the entire nation,” he said while warning of possibly months of chaos ahead during a visit a Red Cross center in Washington.

“We certainly feel profoundly for all the families whose lives have been upended and are going to be going through some very tough times over the next several days, and perhaps several weeks and months.

“The most important message I have for them is that America is with you. We are standing behind you and we are going to do everything we can to help you get back on your feet.”

Mr Obama is to tour the crisis zones of New Jersey with state governor Chris Christie on Wednesday. But he said he had told local officials in the battered states, “If they are getting no for an answer somewhere in the federal government, they can call me personally at the White House - my message to the federal government is no bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources where they are needed as fast as possible, as hard as possible, and for the duration.”