Superstorm Sandy: A shaken nation prepares to rebuild

After the storm, America must deal with the devastation

New York

The United States' East Coast yesterday began a massive clean-up and recovery effort likely to last for weeks after Hurricane Sandy brought a nightmare mix of wind and rain, floods and fire, blackouts and transport paralysis.

The death toll continued to rise throughout the day, with at least 48 people losing their lives in the US and one fatality in Canada, on top of 69 who died in the Caribbean before the giant storm churned its way its way north into one of America's most populous areas. Early estimates of the storm's damage ranged from $10bn to $20bn.

Last night, more than seven million homes and businesses in 15 states, including two million in New York and even more in New Jersey, were without power. In New York, parts of Manhattan were in darkness, while all three of the city's major airports were shut for a second day, causing the cancellation of around 15,000 flights in the US and around the world.

While JFK and Newark airports may partly re-open for business soon, La Guardia, almost at sea level, sustained greater damage and could be shut for days.

Flooding from Monday night's huge tidal surge also inflicted the worst damage on the city's subway system in its 108-year history. For the first time since 1888, the New York Stock Exchange was closed for weather reasons for a second day.

In Washington, President Barack Obama declared New York, Long island and New Jersey major disaster areas, speeding up the flow of federal relief funds.

In a surprise visit to the Red Cross headquarters last night, Mr Obama said that the superstorm was "heartbreaking for the nation". Warning that "it isn't over yet", he said Americans should remain cautious of downed power lines and flooding.

The President will remain off the campaign trail today to visit some the worst affected areas in New Jersey.

With an eye to how voters will perceive his own response to the tragedy next week on polling day, Mr Obama urged government officials to do all they can to respond to the emergency saying "there is no excuse for inaction" and told governors of all the affected states that they could "call me personally at the White House" at any time.

Of those states, none took a heavier pummeling than New Jersey, especially its shoreline and barrier islands where the centre of the storm made landfall on Monday evening. Chris Christie, the state's governor, described the level of destruction there as "unthinkable," and "incalculable," after hurricane-force winds and pounding seas had ravaged low-lying towns.

With nowhere for his helicopter to land, Mr Christie yesterday made a fly-over inspection of the devastated area. "There are houses floating in the middle of Route 35 [a coastal highway]," he told a news conference.

Normally, in these critical final days of a presidential campaign, the blunt-talking Mr Christie, a top Republican draw, would have been out stumping for Mitt Romney and excoriating Mr Obama. But, the governor declared with trademark trenchancy, "I don't give a damn about the election, I've got much bigger fish to fry."

In a measure of how Sandy has temporarily supplanted partisan politics, Mr Christie told of how he had spoken by phone with Mr Obama around midnight on Monday, and lauded the President for his "outstanding" handling of the crisis.

Elsewhere in New Jersey, a levee broke in Moonachie – across the Hudson river from Manhattan – forcing hundreds of people to be rescued by boat and leaving entire neighbourhoods under water.

"We've never had anything like it, a wall of water washed right through," Ralph Verdi, police chief of nearby Little Ferry, said.

Half of Hoboken, on the Hudson's New Jersey shore, was flooded, following the record tidal surge of nearly 14ft into New York harbour. Sandy "came in and made Hoboken an island unto itself, the Hudson flooded us like a bathtub," Dawn Zimmer, Hoboken's mayor, told CNN. New York experienced its own tragedies and dramas. At least 80 houses burned down in Queens as fire, probably caused by an electrical short-circuit, consumed the largely wooden buildings.

Tunnels into the city may be shut down for days, while a spectacular explosion at a substation of the ConEdison utility knocked out power to some 310,000 customers in Manhattan. A spokesman for the utility told said parts of the city may have to go days before their power is restored.

Many Manhattanites also struggled to contact loved ones amid cell phone signal blackouts, leaving them not just without power, but also cut off from the wider world.

In all, New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg said, the Sandy disaster was "maybe the worst we have ever experienced," whose after-effects would be felt "for quite some time".

Hampering recovery efforts was the slow speed of the storm, still lumbering across central and Western Pennsylvania, it's impact being felt hundreds of miles in every direction as it merged with a cold weather system moving in from the west.

Washington DC was initially spared the worst and local transit systems re-opened yesterday afternoon. But low-lying urban areas like Georgetown and Alexandria were bracing for flooding from the swollen Potomac river.

Some 30 miles north in Maryland, two million gallons of raw sewage were pouring into the Patuxent river after a power cut paralysed a water treatment plant.

Inland, in the hills and mountains of West Virginia, Sandy's impact came in the form of feet of heavy wet snow that buckled trees and tore down power lines.

Extraordinarily, parts of the state were under separate blizzard, wind and flood warnings simultaneously.

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