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At least 16 deaths, 6.2 million without power in Superstorm Sandy’s wake

Published: October 30, 2012 | 7:55 am
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Much of New York was plunged into darkness Monday by a superstorm that overflowed the city’s historic waterfront, flooded the financial district and subway tunnels and cut power to hundreds of thousands of people. (Oct. 29)

Superstorm Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coastline with 80 mph winds Monday night and hurled an unprecedented 13-foot surge of seawater at New York City, flooding its tunnels, subway stations and the electrical system that powers Wall Street.

At least 16 U.S. deaths were blamed on the storm, which brought the presidential campaign to a halt a week before Election Da. Sandy also killed 66 people in the Caribbean.

For New York City at least, Sandy was not the days-long onslaught many had feared, and the wind and rain that sent water sloshing into Manhattan from three sides began dying down within hours.

Still, the power was out for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and an estimated 6.2 million people altogether across the East. The full extent of the storm’s damage across the region was unclear, and unlikely to be known until daybreak.

Stock trading will be closed in the U.S. for a second day Tuesday — the first time the New York Stock Exchange will be closed for two consecutive days due to weather since 1888, when a blizzard struck the city.

Heavy rain and further flooding remain major threats for the next couple of days as the storm makes its way into Pennsylvania and up into New York State. The center of the storm was just outside Philadelphia near midnight, and its winds were down to 75 mph, just barely hurricane strength.

“It was nerve-racking for a while, before the storm hit. Everything was rattling,” said Don Schweikert, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in Cape May, N.J., near where Sandy roared ashore. “I don’t see anything wrong, but I won’t see everything until morning.”

As the storm closed in, it converged with a cold-weather system that turned it into a superstorm, a monstrous hybrid consisting not only of rain and high wind but snow in West Virginia and other mountainous areas inland.

It smacked the boarded-up big cities of the Northeast corridor — Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston — with stinging rain and gusts of more than 85 mph.

Just before Sandy reached land, forecasters stripped it of hurricane status, but the distinction was purely technical, based on its shape and internal temperature. It still packed hurricane-force wind, and forecasters were careful to say it was still dangerous to the tens of millions in its path.

Sandy made landfall at 8 p.m. near Atlantic City, which was already mostly under water and saw an old, 50-foot piece of its world-famous Boardwalk washed away earlier in the day.

Authorities reported a record surge 13 feet high at the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan, from the storm and high tide combined.

In an attempt to lessen damage from saltwater to the subway system and the electrical network beneath the city’s financial district, New York City’s main utility cut power to about 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan. But a far wider swath of the city was hit with blackouts caused by flooding and transformer explosions.

About 670,000 customers were without power late Monday in the city and suburban Westchester County.

“This will be one for the record books,” said John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations at ConEdison. “This will be the largest storm-related outage in our history.”

New York’s transit agency said water surged into two major commuter tunnels, the Queens Midtown and the Brooklyn-Battery, and it cut power to some subway tunnels in lower Manhattan after water flowed into the stations and onto the tracks.

The subway system was shut down Sunday night, and the stock markets never opened Monday and are likely to be closed Tuesday as well. Schools were closed and Broadway theaters were dark.

“We knew that this was going to be a very dangerous storm, and the storm has met our expectations,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. “This is a once-in-a-long-time storm.”

More than 200 patients — including 20 infants from neonatal intensive care — were moved from New York University’s Tisch Hospital after its power went out and a backup generator failed. The patients, some on respirators operating on battery power, were taken to other hospitals.

A construction crane atop a luxury high-rise collapsed in the high winds and dangled precariously 74 floors above the street. Forecasters said the wind at the top the building may have been close to 95 mph.

The facade of a four-story building in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood crumbled and collapsed, leaving the lights, couches, cabinets and desks inside visible from the street. No one was hurt.

As the storm approached the Northeast over the weekend, airlines canceled more than 12,000 flights in the region.

Storm damage was projected at $10 billion to $20 billion, meaning it could prove to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Sixteen deaths were reported in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Some of the victims were killed by falling trees. At least one death was blamed on the storm in Canada.

President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney canceled their campaign appearances at the very height of the race, with just over a week to go before Election Day. The president pledged the government’s help and made a direct plea from the White House to those in the storm’s path.

“When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate,” he said. “Don’t delay, don’t pause, don’t question the instructions that are being given, because this is a powerful storm.”

Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Atlantic, began to hook left at midday toward the New Jersey coast.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said people were stranded in Atlantic City, which sits on a barrier island. He accused the mayor of allowing them to stay there. With the hurricane roaring through, Christie warned it was no longer safe for rescuers, and advised people who didn’t evacuate the coast to “hunker down” until morning.

While the hurricane’s 90 mph winds registered as only a Category 1 on a scale of five, it packed “astoundingly low” barometric pressure, giving it terrific energy to push water inland, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at MIT.

And the New York metropolitan area apparently got the worst of it, because it was on the dangerous northeastern wall of the storm.

“We are looking at the highest storm surges ever recorded” in the Northeast, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground, a private forecasting service. “The energy of the storm surge is off the charts, basically.”

Hours before landfall, there was graphic evidence of the storm’s power.

Off North Carolina, a replica of the 18th-century sailing ship HMS Bounty that was built for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie “Mutiny on the Bounty” went down in the storm, and 14 crew members were rescued by helicopter from rubber lifeboats bobbing in 18-foot seas. Another crew member was found hours afterward but was later pronounced dead at a hospital. The captain was missing.

At Cape May, water sloshed over the seawall, and it punched through dunes in other seaside communities.

“When I think about how much water is already in the streets, and how much more is going to come with high tide tonight, this is going to be devastating,” said Bob McDevitt, president of the main Atlantic City casino workers union. “I think this is going to be a really bad situation tonight.”

In Maryland, at least 100 feet of a fishing pier at the beach resort of Ocean City was destroyed.

At least half a million people along the East Coast had been ordered to evacuate, including 375,000 from low-lying parts of New York City.

Those who stayed behind had few ways to get out.
Not only was the New York subway shut down, but the Holland Tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey was closed, as was a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and several other spans were closed because of high winds.

Nuclear plant shuts down, nation’s oldest plant on alert

Part of a nuclear power plant was shut down late Monday while another plant — the nation’s oldest — was put on alert after waters from superstorm Sandy rose 6 feet above sea level.

One of the units at Indian Point, a plant about 45 miles north of New York City, was shut down around 10:45 p.m. because of external electrical grid issues said Entergy Corp., which operates the plant. The company said there was no risk to employees or the public, and the plant was not at risk due to water levels from the Hudson River, which reached 9 feet 8 inches and was subsiding. Another unit at the plant was still operating at full power.

The oldest U.S. nuclear power plant, New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, was already out of service for scheduled refueling. But high water levels at the facility, which sits along Barnegat Bay, prompted safety officials to declare an “unusual event” around 7 p.m. About two hours later, the situation was upgraded to an “alert,” the second-lowest in a four-tiered warning system.

Conditions were still safe at Oyster Creek, Indian Point and all other U.S. nuclear plants, said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees plant safety.

A rising tide, the direction of the wind and the storm’s surge combined to raise water levels in Oyster Creek’s intake structure, the NRC said. The agency said that water levels are expected to recede within hours and that the plant, which went online in 1969 and is set to close in 2019, is watertight and capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds.

The plant’s owner, Exelon Corp., said power was also disrupted in the station’s switchyard, but backup diesel generators were providing stable power, with more than two weeks of fuel on hand.

In other parts of the East Coast, nuclear plants were weathering the storm without incident.

Inspectors from the NRC, whose own headquarters and Northeast regional office were closed for the storm, were manning all plants around the clock. The agency dispatched extra inspectors or placed them on standby in five states, equipped with satellite phones to ensure uninterrupted contact.

Nuclear power plants are built to withstand hurricanes, airplane collisions and other major disasters, but safety procedures call for plants to be shut down when hurricane-force winds are present, or if water levels nearby exceed certain flood limits.

At the Salem and Hope Creek plants in Hancocks Bridge, N.J., which together produce enough power for about 3 million homes per day, officials were watching for sustained winds of 74 mph or greater that would trigger taking the plants offline. The nearby Delaware River posed another hazard if water levels exceed 99.5 feet, compared with a normal level of 89 feet.

Joe Delmar, a spokesman for Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., said that only essential employees had been asked to report to work but that current projections were that the plants would not have to close. One of the units at Salem had already been offline due to regular refueling and maintenance.

In Lusby, Md., the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant was operating at full power — enough to power more than 1 million homes. Additional staff, both onsite and off, were called in to prepare for the storm. Safety officials there will take the plant offline if sustained winds exceed 75 mph or water levels rise more than 10 feet above normal sea level.

At Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna plant in Salem Township, officials were ready to activate their emergency plan, a precursor to taking the plant offline, if sustained winds hit 80 mph.

“Our top concern is ensuring that the plants are in a safe condition, that they are following their severe weather procedures,” said Diane Screnci of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She said that even though the agency’s headquarters and regional office had been closed, its incident response center was staffed, with other regions ready to lend a hand if necessary.

At the Millstone nuclear power complex on Connecticut’s shoreline, officials said earlier Monday they were powering down one of the two reactors to 75 percent of maximum output to maintain stability of the electric grid. Millstone spokesman Ken Holt said the grid’s stability could be affected if the unit was operating at 100 percent and suddenly went offline, which isn’t expected to happen.

Some 60 million people in 13 states plus the District of Columbia get their power from PJM, the largest regional power grid in the U.S. Contingency plans call for power to be brought in from other areas to replace power lost if a nuclear plant reduces output or goes offline.

“It’s done instantaneously,” said Paula DuPont-Kidd, a spokeswoman for the grid. “Even if multiple plants go offline at the same time, we’d have to see how adjustments would be made, but for the most part we plan for that scenario.”

In August 2011, multiple nuclear plants shut down due to Hurricane Irene, with others reducing power.

Although nuclear plants are built for resilience, their operations get more complicated when only emergency personnel are on duty or if external electricity gets knocked out, as often happens during hurricanes.

“When external power is not available, you have to use standby generators,” said Sudarshan Loyalka, who teaches nuclear engineering at University of Missouri. “You just don’t want to rely on backup power.”

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed.

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