Nature vs. Superpower Sandy Leaves Trail of Death and Destruction
The storm washed train cars onto highways and dragged an entire roller coaster into the sea. Hurricane Sandy revealed just how vulnerable America is to the forces of nature. Clean-up is likely to take weeks or even months in the hardest hit sections of New Jersey.
Hurricane Sandy's true power is only now becoming apparent, hours after the storm slammed into America's East Coast. But now it is clear that entire regions of New Jersey have been destroyed. Some 8 million Americans will be without power for days. And the number of deaths has climbed to at least 45. Half of Manhattan seems like a ghost town on Tuesday.
And yet, there is still the other America, just as cheerful as always. In Caffé Alimentari in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, guests had returned to their soy-milk lattes by Tuesday afternoon.
Sandy, like all natural disasters, didn't differentiate between rich and poor, city or countryside. The super-storm's swath of destruction reached from rural Virginia across New York and into the rich suburbs of Connecticut.
President Barack Obama has cancelled all of his campaign appearances planned for Wednesday, heading instead for New Jersey and other areas hit hardest by the storm to inspect the damage and offer his support. The failure of federal crisis response in the aftermath of 2005 Hurricane Katrina during the administration of President George W. Bush has not been forgotten. This time, Obama has received praise even from his political opponents.
The chaos in New York, unprecedented in a metropolis that has no shortage of catastrophes in its history, made the most headlines. But the worst of the damage can be found in the state of New Jersey, where the coastal city of Atlantic City was badly flooded and battered by an unprecedented storm surge. A tired-looking New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said on Tuesday that the damage "is beyond anything I thought I'd ever see. Terrible."
The full extent of what happened only became apparent as the East Coast woke up on Tuesday morning. Sandy was the largest storm ever recorded in the region, with its effects being felt from Georgia in the south to Maine in the north. There were deaths in six different states and material damage is likely to exceed $20 billion. Even through Tuesday, Sandy continued to pummel states further inland, producing heavy snowfall, torrential rains and winds gusts of over 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour). Its effects were felt as far west as the Great Lakes.
Infrastructure Weaknesses Exposed
Sandy also revealed just how fragile America's infrastructure is. Streets and rail lines were destroyed, the power grid failed and communication networks collapsed, with both telephone and internet connections spotty up and down the East Coast. Telecommunications company Verizon was hit the worst, with technically vital facilities suffering floods in Manhattan, Queens and Long Island. The most densely populated and technologically advanced region in the US turned out to be defenseless against the elements.
"Nature is an awful lot more powerful than we are," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after a day and night spent trying to keep the city informed about storm-related developments.
At least 18 people were killed in New York City alone, according to the Associated Press, with damage likely to exceed 7 billion. Two million people were without electricity on Tuesday afternoon, 660,000 of them in Manhattan, with the southern half of the island almost completely dark. "This will be the largest storm-related outage in our history," said John Miksad, vice president of the electricity utility Con Edison.
Internet and telephone connections were sporadic in New York throughout Tuesday -- if they worked at all. Finding power to charge computers and phones was a challenge. In the Financial District and in Tribeca, there wasn't a light to be seen and stoplights were down as well. Few people were on the streets and no police were to be seen. A line formed in front of a lone kiosk that was open. Wall Street, busy even on Christmas, was completely dark and abandoned. The only financial firm that appeared to have power was Goldman Sachs, where employees trickled in to work wearing jeans and rubber boots. The stock exchange is expected to resume trading on Wednesday.
On West 57th St. in Manhattan, a large crane dangles damaged from a luxury high-rise some 300 meters (1,000 feet) above the street. Avenue of the Americas, usually choked with traffic, has been blocked off. "But I want to get into my apartment," an older man implores. A police officer manning the barricade is unmoved. "No way," he says. A lost shoe lies in the gutter at the edge of the street.
New York's subway system -- the world's largest with 1,355 kilometers (842 miles) of track and five million passengers per day -- has suffered the worst damage in its 108-year history. Entire tunnels were flooded and switches and signals were damaged. It will likely remain out of commission for four to five days, said Mayor Bloomberg, with some sections inoperable for even longer. Seven subway tunnels under the East River were flooded.
On Tuesday, several bridges into Manhattan reopened, but two tunnels remained closed to traffic.
New Jersey Residents Stunned
One of the most unexpected results of Sandy's assault was the number of devastating fires it produced despite the pouring rains. In the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, at least 111 homes burned to the ground as floodwaters sealed off the area to responding fire fighters. There were some two dozen fires elsewhere in the city as well, and the entire façade of a building in Chelsea collapsed. More than 6,100 people headed to the 76 emergency shelters that had been set up, many of them having been evacuated from retirement homes.
New York's airports remained closed throughout Tuesday with officials hoping they will be able to reopen on Wednesday. The runway at La Guardia, however, was still partially underwater on Tuesday. A total of some 15,500 flights have now been cancelled as a result of Sandy.
But whereas New Yorkers on Tuesday approached the massive challenges associated with the clean-up with their usual mixture of perma-stress and serenity, residents of New Jersey were in shock. Several smaller coastal towns were hit hard and are facing difficult weeks of recovery. Governor Christie said the damage to his state was "unfathomable."
Numerous towns were almost entirely under water on Tuesday, including the gambling mecca Atlantic City. The National Guard was called in to help rescue people, many of whom were plucked off their rooftops, and the Salvation Army is supplying food to those in need. Some 2.4 million people in New Jersey are without electricity, with the state's biggest city Newark and Jersey City almost completely dark.
The sheer power of the storm was also on display in New Jersey, where dozens of train cars were washed onto one section of highway, and the Seaside Park amusement park, including the entire roller coaster, was swept out to sea. A dam also broke in northern New Jersey, flooding four communities.
Obama on Wednesday plans to visit areas of New Jersey that were hit the hardest, accompanied by the state's Republican governor Christie. The president will be "viewing the storm damage, talking with citizens who are recovering from the storm and thanking first responders who put their lives at risk to protect their communities," according to a White House statement released on Tuesday.
He will have to be careful. With Election Day less than a week away, it will be difficult for both Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney to avoid the impression of trying to politicize their response to the storm. The president will likely have an easier time of it. After all, crisis response is part of his job description. Still, at a time like this it is easy to accidentally produce awkward pictures or poorly worded statements -- as Obama's predecessor Bush found out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Obama worked throughout the night from Monday to Tuesday in the Situation Room to monitor federal response to the disaster. In a conference call with 13 governors and seven mayors from states affected by the storm, he offered encouragement and "all available resources."
Obama's exertion impressed even Governor Chris Christie, who has spent much of the campaign season stumping for Romney. Despite blasting Obama every chance he has gotten in recent weeks, Christie praised the president on Tuesday, saying his response to the storm had been "wonderful." When asked about the comment on conservative mouthpiece FOX, he said "if you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics then you don't know me."
Still, the campaign carries on. Ads for both candidates continued airing in the swing states with Obama delegating his scheduled appearances to Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton. His election manager Jim Messina sent out emails criticizing Romney as usual.
And the Republican candidate likewise found himself in a tough spot. Continue with the campaign or wait? "We have heavy hearts, as you know, with all of the suffering going on in a major part of our country," he said in Dayton, Ohio. He then helped load up a truck with water bottles heading for the East Coast. That, too, is part of the campaign.
With reporting by Florian Harms, Roland Nelles and Thomas Schulz