'We evacuated for Hurricane Irene, but this time we chose to stay. The wind was scary'

Nikhil Kumar meets the residents who decided not to flee New York as Sandy bore in

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The Independent Online

Ahmed Sisoko was driving home to the Bronx from lower Manhattan shortly after Superstorm Sandy came ashore in southern New Jersey on Monday night. "It was crazy," said Mr Sisoko, a taxi driver who has been plying his trade on New York's streets for more than a decade. "Crazy, crazy, crazy! Very bad. Wind, rain, trees falling. Couldn't see anything. I've never seen anything close."

Click HERE to view the Hurricane Sandy 'crisis map'

As Mr Sisoko ploughed through the rain, Mary Moonie was watching an episode of Prime Suspect at her apartment in Battery Park City along the Hudson River, where the storm surge exceeded 13 feet. Ms Moonie was among those who defied official warnings to evacuate from low-lying areas. "We evacuated for [Hurricane] Irene," she said. "This time we decided to stay. But it was scary, particularly the wind."

Further north, Christa Schaub was camped inside her West Village apartment. "It was like [the Will Smith movie] I Am Legend around here, just me, my dog and a couple of candles," she said. Her apartment overlooks Washington Square; concerned about loose branches as the wind howled, she had reinforced her windows. "The scary thing was being cut off," she said. "My power went out at 8:30pm, and I have no [mobile phone] signal."

Ms Schaub wasn't alone. About a quarter of New York's homes and business were without power the morning after Sandy slammed the city with pounding rain and record tidal surges. Making matters worse was a massive explosion at a lower Manhattan sub-station just as utility companies were shutting parts of the grid to protect equipment on Monday night.

Among those spared by the power cuts was Herbie Ledger, who lives on Rector Street in the Battery Park area. Although inside the evacuation zone like Ms Moonie, he was one of the few who got through the night with little disruption.

TJ Westfall, who lives nearby, had a similar experience. "We moved out last year. But then, nothing really happened down here – and there was power," he said. This time, he admits, "we got lucky".

"It was quite bad – but the excess water got flushed down the Brooklyn Battery tunnel," he said.

The flooded tunnel remained closed yesterday. The rising waters have left the men and women running New York's vast Subway system – the country's biggest – with a major headache. The Subway was closed before the storm hit, but scores of underground stations were flooded. At one downtown stop, the water was "literally up to the ceiling", said Joseph Lhota, the chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Taxis, unsurprisingly, were hard to come by yesterday. Powerless and in many cases without phone service or the ability to venture too far afield, many Manhattanites had little to do but survey the damage – mostly fallen tree branches and damaged scaffolding – in their neighbourhoods. Other districts did not escape so lightly; in Queens, dozens of homes were burnt down in an inferno fuelled by the storm's fierce winds.

Around Washington Square, University Avenue and Union Square most shop fronts were still dark at mid-morning, and the few coffee-shops that had opened their doors in the worst-affected areas were overflowing with customers.

Further north, near Central Park, a police line was still holding gawkers from venturing too close to the site of the crane that was damaged by furious winds on Monday.

Amoz Diaz, a security guard on duty two blocks away when the crane at the construction site snapped and was left dangling dozens of stories above ground, said he received a phone call alerting him at around 4pm. "We got a call and then they blocked off the area – all of that," he said, pointing in the direction of the cordon. "It was pretty quick. They closed it off very fast."

Just as quickly, a small crowd had formed at the cordon after daybreak on Tuesday, as the damaged crane continued to dangle from its perch. Some had come especially, while others appeared to be just passing by when they noticed the partly-built tower that was all over the evening news. "It's quite amazing what happened," taxi driver Mr Sisoko said as he changed fares nearby.

Victims' voices: 'It was like a scene from New Orleans'

Our apartment building is one of few that still has power in all of lower Manhattan, but our community centre nearby took in an incredible amount of water. The lower level of the building is flooded. Even now that the storm water has receded, the lower level is unreachable and submerged under at least 15 feet of water. There's debris, plant matter and pools of brown water – it just doesn't seem like New York."

Robert Townley, Manhattan

"Many houses were flooded up to their roofs with people on top awaiting rescue – much like a scene from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. There are no cars on the street and it's very quiet – it's just not normal for a Tuesday morning. It seems the flooding was much worse than we were expecting."

Sean Gorelik, New York City

"The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night."

Joseph Lhota, New York City transport director

"Lower Manhattan is being covered by seawater… I am not exaggerating. Seawater is rushing into the Battery Tunnel."

Howard Glaser, director of operations for the New York state government

"I saw trees not just knocked down but ripped right out of the ground. I watched a tree crush a guy's house like a wet sponge."

Juan Allen, New Jersey

"It is beyond anything I thought I'd ever see… It is a devastating sight right now."

Chris Christie, New Jersey Governor

"We're on the 49th floor of a building in Midtown, Manhattan… Our windows are blowing open, the lifts have stopped working and the building has been swaying gently which is unsettling. It's still raining but it has been easing."

Mark Jones, Manhattan

"They said to take only what we needed, and leave the rest, because we'll come back in two or three days… I hope so."

Alice Goldberg, 15, a tourist evacuated from her hotel in Manhattan

"It sounded like the Fourth of July."

Stephen Weisbrot, speaking from his 10th-floor apartment in Manhattan

"It's total devastation down there, there are boats in the street five blocks from the ocean… That's the worst storm I've ever seen, and I've been there for 11 years."

Peter Sandomeno New Jersey

"This was a devastating storm, maybe the worst that we have ever experienced."

Michael Bloomberg NYC Mayor

"I am a British person working at a local hospital here in the IT department. We're all hunkered down and it has been pretty crazy… People have been sleeping where they can in the hospital as it survives on back-up generators."

Ross Cocheo Summit, New Jersey

"From start to finish this wall of water, in some places a wave much higher than five feet, hit this unprepared area. The full impact was felt in less than 30 minutes… There are probably more than 2,000 residents affected by this and a lot do not realize they cannot go back home tonight."

Jeanne Baratta Bergen County Executive, New Jersey

"The ocean is in the road, there are trees down everywhere. I've never seen it this bad."

David Arnold Long Branch, New Jersey

"The days ahead are going to be very difficult."

Martin O'Malley, Maryland Governor