Updated Oct. 30 at 02:14 p.m.
By Mariano Andrade and Brigitte Dusseau
NEW YORK – Hurricane Sandy – now downgraded to a “super-storm” – turned New York into a disaster zone on Monday as a record storm surge sent seawater pouring into Manhattan, sweeping cars down streets as the city was plunged into darkness.
The Empire State Building remained an eerie beacon of light as 250,000 Manhattan homes were deprived of power. State Governor Andrew Cuomo reported 15 storm-related deaths in New York, and a total of 39 in the United States and Canada.
The East River and the Hudson River flooded subway and car tunnels and several feet of seawater swamped into Battery Park at the foot of Lower Manhattan, with waters rising and the rain showing no sign of abating.
“Lower Manhattan is being covered by seawater. I am not exaggerating. Seawater is rushing into the Battery Tunnel,” said Howard Glaser, director of operations for the New York state government.
The Battery Tunnel is a road tunnel linking the south end of Manhattan, New York’s financial center, to Long Island under the East River.
Local energy supplier Con Edison reported that 250,000 customers had lost power in Manhattan alone.
In addition to the surging waters of the East and Hudson rivers, the city was by battered by what the National Weather Service called “hurricane-force gusts” of more than 90 miles per hour.
As the evening tide hit its height the storm surge was a record 13.7 feet (4.2 meters). Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, forecasters had warned that any more than 11 feet could cause catastrophic flooding.
Cars could be seen afloat in several Manhattan streets, and the facade of a six-story building collapsed.
Local broadcaster WNBC said some houses on Staten Island were “flooded up to their attics,” while the New York Police Department sought boats to conduct rescue missions there and on Brooklyn’s Coney Island.
Floods swamped cars in Brooklyn, while fierce gusts pushed over a crane on a Manhattan skyscraper – leaving it dangling perilously atop a 90-story luxury apartment.
The boom of the crane swayed in the fierce gusts over streets near Central Park that police and fire services evacuated because of the risk that it could fall.
Gas and water pipes at street level were closed and city engineers and fire department experts climbed the 1,004-foot building to assess the danger.
In another spectacular demonstration of its power, the hurricane pulled off the facade of a three-story building in the Chelsea district. No injuries were reported.
Tens of thousands of people ignored appeals by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to leave the districts at risk.
“If water is coming into your home, go to the highest area,” Bloomberg advised citizens as he held a hastily arranged press conference amid the worst of the carnage.
“It’s still very dangerous and from now until the storm is well passed you just have to shelter in place. You need to stay wherever you are. Let me repeat that. You have to stay wherever you are.”
New York authorities earlier had closed the subway train system and nearly all tunnels and bridges that take traffic off Manhattan as the full force of Sandy hit America’s biggest city.
With Wall Street closed for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and the city at a near standstill, police went to several districts with loudspeakers and special buses trying to persuade people to move.
New York state also called up more than 2,100 National Guard troops on Sunday and Monday to patrol threatened districts.
Authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order for 375,000 people at risk from a storm surge predicted to be over 11 feet, but the majority decided to brave it out.
As night fell, Bloomberg had warned that it may be too late to get away.
On the streets of Manhattan, police cars used to block streets gradually retreated as flood water moved further into the island.
Schools and landmark attractions such as the Empire State Building were all closed and were to stay closed Tuesday. Hardly a car ventured onto the streets.
President Barack Obama declared a “major disaster” in New York as millions of people along the U.S. East Coast awakened Tuesday to the deadly devastation.
At least 16 people were killed in the U.S. and Canada as the storm roared ashore late Monday, pounding several major cities with heavy rain and hurricane-force winds that toppled trees and ripped down power lines.
The storm weakened as it moved further inland but forecasters still warned of gale-force winds and flooding along the densely-populated coast, where 7,400 National Guardsmen were mobilized in 11 states to provide emergency relief.
Obama declared a “major disaster” had hit both the states of New York and New Jersey, an order that cleared the way for federal grants and loans to help storm victims acquire temporary housing and repair damage.
Further south, giant waves crashed over vast swathes of the eastern seaboard, turning coastal cities into ghost towns as the high winds grounded flights and shut down rail links, public transport and government offices.
The catastrophe completely overshadowed the U.S. election race, forcing a halt to campaigning a week before Americans were due to go to the polls to choose between Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Hurricane Sandy had killed 67 people as it tore through the Caribbean, and reports of more deaths began to arrive after it made landfall at 8 p.m. in New Jersey and began to wreak havoc.
Authorities had ordered hundreds of thousands of residents in areas from New England to North Carolina to evacuate their homes and seek shelter, but many chose to stay on, to the frustration of police and local officials.
Falling trees tore down power cables, plunging what weather experts said were millions of homes into darkness, while storm warnings cut rail links and marooned tens of thousands of travelers at airports across the region.
Two nuclear plants – one in New York and one in New Jersey – were shut down in the aftermath of the storm, but operators stressed that neither posed any risk to the public.
“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,” city transport director Joseph Lhota said early Tuesday.
Firefighters meanwhile doused a massive blaze in the Queens borough that destroyed more than 50 homes, with only two minor injuries reported, and in northern New Jersey police in boats pulled residents from second-story windows after a levee broke.
Hours earlier, a power sub-station exploded in a burst of light captured by amateur photographers as a massive blackout left much of Manhattan, and some 500,000 homes across New York City, in darkness.
The flood waters had begun to recede early Tuesday, but the Con Edison power company said it could take a week to completely restore power.
Disaster estimating firm Eqecat forecast that Sandy would affect more than 60 million Americans, a fifth of the population, and cause billions of dollars in damage.
Refineries closed and major arteries such New York’s Holland Tunnel were shut to traffic. The operator of two major New Jersey nuclear plants said they might have to be closed, threatening half the state’s power supply.
Obama urged Americans to heed local evacuation orders as he stepped off the campaign trail and spent the day in the White House helping to coordinate the response to the disaster.
“The election will take care of itself next week,” Obama said. “Right now, our number one priority is to make sure that we are saving lives … and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track.”
Both the Democratic incumbent and his Republican rival Romney were keen to display resolute leadership in the face of the storm, given the memory of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Romney also canceled some campaign appearances.
Former president George W. Bush was widely seen as having bungled the handling of Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. The failure of authorities in the ensuing emergency response tainted the rest of his presidency.