30 Oct 2012

Death, flooding and blackouts after Superstorm Sandy

The worst of the storm may be over, but the recovery has only just begun. As President Obama declares a major disaster, millions on the US eastern seaboard face transport chaos and days of blackouts.

The damage, said a visibly shaken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, was simply “unthinkable”. Images of the destruction wrought along the Jersey shore revealed the devastating force of Superstorm Sandy.

Millions of people remain without power. Transport systems will be in chaos for days. Across the affected states, homes have been destroyed, roads damaged, while up to 33 people are now known to have lost their lives.

The worst of the storm saw record-breaking surges of water which overwhelmed levees and sea walls, flooding into New York’s lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, turning the area into a virtual ghost town. Cars were seen floating down the street.

The mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey, Dawn Zimmer, said half the city had been flooded. One resident described the scene as “God fearing”. A curfew and a driving ban remains in force.

‘Not yet over’

President Obama held a conference call with 13 governors and seven mayors. He warned that the storm was “not yet over”. There were still risks, he said, of flooding and high winds.

And he pledged extra help for power companies to restore supplies, and to local authorities trying to cope with the clean-up.

Now, faced with the daunting task of cleaning up after a disaster on such a scale, officials and local communities are struggling to work out where to begin.

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg said at least 10 people had been killed, some by falling trees, others by stepping in puddles where power lines had come down. In Breexy Point in Queens, a huge fire ripped through 80 homes already hit by flooding. Firefighters managed to rescue 25 people trapped in an apartment as flames lapped at the doors.

The unprecedented 13-foot storm surge also flooded through the city’s subway system, which is likely to remain shut down for several days. The MTA chief Joseph Lhota said the damage was the worst in its 108-year history. All seven tunnels were flooded with corrosive salt water, which now needs to be pumped away.

Power shutdown

Power supplies will be just as tricky to restore. One Con Edison substation was knocked out by an explosion, while two New York hospitals had to close because their back-up generators failed.

John Miksad, senior vice-president at Con Edison, called it “one for the record books”, while several nuclear power plans were slowed or shut down. At the Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, an alert status was triggered when flood waters reached six feet above sea level, enough to pose a risk to a cooling system.

In continued fallout from the storm, more than 13,500 flights had to be cancelled, stranding travellers and creating huge backlogs which will take days to clear. More extreme weather has hit areas beyond the original eye of the storm: there has been heavy snow in parts of West Virginia, where a blizzard warning remains in effect.

Officials in Chicago have warned people to stay away from the shores of Lake Michigan, amid warnings of 60mph winds and waves as high as 24 feet.

Election on pause

The storm has continued to put election politics on pause, of sorts. President Obama cancelled all his campaign events until the end of Wednesday to keep across the disaster response, and sent a note to major donors asking them to contribute to the Red Cross instead of his campaign.

“Friends, this is a serious storm, but we are going to do what it takes to keep people safe and secure, and make sure the communities affected get the assistance they need,” he wrote.

In a display of non-partisanship, New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie went out of his way to praise the way Obama had handled the response, calling him “outstanding”.

Mitt Romney announced he was changing a planned campaign event in Kettering, Ohio, into a “hurricane relief” event, where supporters were urged to bring donations for the Red Cross. Reporters at the event were still issued with “Romney victory tour” press passes, imbuing the occasion with something of a political hue.

The Romney team announced that he would be resuming electioneering on Wednesday, with a scheduled rally in the swing state of Florida: another tricky balance between campaigning and not-campaigning.

But for the moment, the nation is seeking to pull together in the face of crisis. New York governor Andrew Cuomo said utility workers from as far away as Texas and California were being brought in to help with repair efforts.

“We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and old systems. That’s not a good combination,” he said.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News