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Sandy Aftermath Affects Millions in New York and Along New Jersey’s Coast

October 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The brunt of Hurricane Sandy's powerful winds, surf and rain hit the New Jersey coastline and the nation's most populous city. NewsHour examines the situation in New York and in the greater Northeast region, where schools and public transportation closed down, flights were canceled and an estimated 6.2 million people lost power.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The giant storm named Sandy left a growing toll today. Officials reported at least 40 people killed and $20 billion or more in damage. The nation’s most populous city and its surroundings were at the epicenter.

New York was a city in shock today, even deserted in places, after a night of fear, fire and flood. A record storm surge of 13 feet poured into parts of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens as Sandy hit. The rush of water closed major commuter tunnels linking Manhattan with other boroughs, contributing to the worst damage to the subway system in its 108 years.

NANA VISITOR, actress: Last night, we could look down this street here, and we saw the river coming toward us. And it actually looked like something out of a movie. It was unbelievable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Equally unbelievable, winds of at least 80 miles an hour blew out the bright lights that usually dominate the Manhattan skyline. Some one million homes and businesses in and around the city lost power.

Today, Mayor Michael Bloomberg appealed for understanding amid warnings it could take days to restore all transit service and power.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York: We have begun the work of clearing and reopening bridges and roadways, both of which will take some time. And the best way New Yorkers can help us get this done quickly is to stay off the roads.

The work of getting our mass transit grid and our power grid restored, however, is going to take more time and a lot of patience.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But no amount of patience would make good some losses. In Queens, a fire destroyed at least 100 homes and forced firefighters to trudge through waist-deep water to rescue the trapped.

Elsewhere, crashing waves hurled a tanker ship ashore on Staten Island. Flooding also swept up cars from city streets and carried them away. And water rushed into the construction site where the WorldTradeCenter once stood, as high winds store away the facade of buildings. The wind also blew a construction crane from its perch near a luxury high-rise in Midtown Manhattan, where it dangled today.

Thousands of people were forced to leave the surrounding buildings. And 200 patients had to be carried from New YorkUniversity’s TischHospital overnight after its backup generator failed. This morning, many people were still trying to take it all in.

MELISSA TERRICK,New York City: It was never really like raining that hard. The wind wasn’t blowing that — that hard last night either. So, just to see how much — how much just happened with even not a lot of wind, not a lot of rain is crazy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The superstorm kept all three New York area airports closed today. And things were quiet on Wall Street, as the weather shut down the New York Stock Exchange for a second straight day, something that last happened in 1888.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo struggled today to sum up all that the storm had done.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, D-N.Y.: I have been involved in disaster mitigation all across the country when I worked in the federal government. And I have seen all types of disasters. I have to tell you, what I saw last night in downtown Manhattan, what went on, on the south shore of Long Island were some of the worst conditions that I had seen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Like New York, New Jersey was also declared a federal disaster area.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: The level of devastation at the JerseyShore is unthinkable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By the time Sandy made landfall, it had been downgraded from a hurricane. But Gov. Chris Christie said today the distinction made little difference to badly damaged beach towns.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: Those out there who are facing loss, devastation, and a heartbreaking reality that your home may be gone, we’re with you. We have a long road ahead of us, but I have complete confidence we’re going to come out of this better and stronger than before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there will be much to rebuild. The storm destroyed a large section of the famed Atlantic City boardwalk, and farther north, in Moonachie, 1,000 people had to flee their homes after the water charged over a berm. And some people had to be rescued late last night in Weehawken, after failing to evacuate.

MAN: I was scared that I was going to drown. It was — it was just crazy. I had a hard time getting out of my house.

QUESTION: Water went up to your neck.

MAN: Yes, the water went up to my neck. Sometimes, it went over my head.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The giant storm’s reach also extended up and down the East Coast and far inland. To the north, strong winds and heavy surf did damage in New England. Sparks flew from downed power lines in Westport, Mass.

In Maryland, a power outage at a water treatment plant sent millions of gallons of storm water and sewage flowing into a river in HowardCounty.

Still, Gov. Martin O’Malley said it was a pleasant surprise the state didn’t have worse damage.

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY, D-Md.: I’m feeling a lot better today than I was last night, before this storm made landfall. I mean, it’s clear that we were fortunate to have been on the weaker side of this storm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, D.C., federal government offices and public schools were closed for a second day. Public transit was shut down through the morning, but reopened in the early afternoon. And downed trees and branches littered grounds near the U.S. Capitol and across the National Mall.

President Obama visited the Red Cross national headquarters and warned those still in the storm’s path to remain vigilant.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This storm is not yet over. We have gotten briefings from the NationalHurricaneCenter. It is still moving north. There are still communities that could be affected.

And so, I want to emphasize there’s still risks of flooding. There are still risks of downed power lines, risks of high winds. And so it is very important for the public to continue to monitor the situation in your local community, listen to your state and local officials.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The warning included especially Pennsylvania, where the rain kept falling and floodwaters kept rising today. And where the storm already passed, cleanup was the order of the day.

With first light, utility crews from across the country began working to restore power to millions of people.

MAN: We’re really lucky to have, you know, everybody safe and have the crews already here getting us fixed up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In parts of Appalachia, the problem was snow. The hurricane dumped up to a foot of it after merging with a cold front, catching some people off-guard.

MAN: I wasn’t ready for it either. I left all my winter stuff in Charlotte.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, in the Midwest, the storm’s power stretched all the way to Chicago, as waves crashed along the shores of Lake Michigan. The WindyCity also got gusts up to 60 miles an hour, especially challenging for cyclists like this one.

WOMAN: It’s really tough going north. It’s very easy going south. You don’t even have to pedal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Those same conditions were felt in parts of Michigan and Wisconsin with voluntary evacuations in some towns. The weather also scrambled air travel, radiating out from the Northeast.

Reagan National in Washington and other airports were practically deserted after thousands of flights were canceled. And, at sea, the 63-year-old captain from a replica of the HMS Bounty was still missing after his ship sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Now on-the-ground reports, beginning with the situation in New York City.

Warren Levinson is with The Associated Press, and he joins me now.

Welcome.

So, we just reported some of the statistics. We have seen some pictures, but tell us what you’re seeing with your own eyes.

WARREN LEVINSON, The Associated Press: Well, Judy, what you’re seeing around New York is a city that just looks paralyzed.

What’s interesting is really what we can’t see, which is the kind of damage that the storm surge has wrought underground. And so much of what we depend on here in New York is underground, electric lines, subway lines, steam lines. And that was inundated with saltwater.

We really don’t know how long it will be before we get to resume our regular lives once that infrastructure gets put back.

 

You saw people walking around today kind of aimlessly because there’s no transit. So, if you want to get anywhere, you have got to walk or ride a bike. And if you’re in a car or a taxi, you sort of take your life in your hands, as there are a lot of street lights out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how much of the city is impacted? Is it the entire city affected by these disruptions?

WARREN LEVINSON: All of the city is affected by these disruptions.

When you shut down the entire subway system, you’re shutting down the main means of transportation for the vast majority of, not only New Yorkers, but people who come to visit New York. We also have had for a while shutdowns of the bridges and tunnels. Most of them are open, although a couple of tunnels remain closed because they are underwater.

It’s just amazing to see the image of all of that water flowing in, for instance, to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how are people dealing with this? New Yorkers, we think of them as a pretty tough lot. How are they coping?

WARREN LEVINSON: Denial is a really big help. It’s the sort of — it’s — when you first get hit, Judy, the first thing, what do you think? You think, ah, that wasn’t so bad.

But as time goes on and as, you know, you start to feel the effects, it will be a problem. It will be an economic problem. It will be an emotional problem. We still really don’t know. We’re still feeling the full effects. We’re still getting to the full effects here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as you — I don’t know how much you have been able to actually get out, walk around. I mean, what are some images that stay with you?

WARREN LEVINSON: The images that stay with me, I will give you a couple, last night, coming out from a Midtown office and looking south and seeing really nothing because the power was out, so much of the power was out to our south, that you’re used to this vibrant city staring at you.

And it was invisible in the dark because so many of the lights were off. I will give you another one, which was I was over by the big substation that went out on East 14th Street this morning. And people didn’t have television. They didn’t have Internet. And somebody had taken his big portable radio and put it on the second floor in his window when the governor was giving a briefing.

And you had a knot of people, like a semicircle of people, standing around it listening for what’s the latest information. It was, let’s go back to 1927 or something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are people — well, speaking of that, are people comparing this to anything else they have experienced?

WARREN LEVINSON: There’s some comparison to the last storm 14 months ago, Irene. That was when the subways were shut down.

But the difference was, the subways ultimately weren’t damaged. And so they got pretty much right back into — right back into work. You know, it’s interesting.

We’re not getting the 9/11 comparisons, which is really the last thing that fully affected everybody in the city. But you’re not really hearing that.

The comparison that came up, for instance, the New York Stock Exchange closed for weather two days in a row. The last time they did that was the blizzard of 1888. There’s nobody around here who members the blizzard of 1888, so there’s not a lot of talk about, we look back and we remember that big old blizzard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we understand the stock exchange is open again tomorrow.

What about work in general? Are people going — expecting to go back to work, to get any semblance of life back to normal?

WARREN LEVINSON: Tomorrow will be a really interesting day, because I think, after two days and after the weather kind of gets back to normal, you will get people feeling antsy.

You will get them wanting to get out and also to get out and make a living. It’s really been interesting to see. Most of the shops have been closed as you walk around the streets.

And, eventually, there’s going to be this demand to get supplies, to get food, to just be social. And so, as the week wears on, it will be really interesting to see people try to resume their lives without the kind of things that they really need, which is, you know, electricity, lights, transportation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s a big blow to a big city.

Warren Levinson, thank you very much.

WARREN LEVINSON: You bet, Judy.

GWEN IFILL: And to two more takes on the storm from a transit official in New York and a reporter on the New JerseyShore.

Ray Suarez talked to them by phone earlier today, beginning with Charles Seaton of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Seaton, welcome to the program.

Your agency runs a tremendous array of services, commuter rail, rapid transit, buses, bridges and tunnels. How long before you think you have a full assessment of the damage?

CHARLES SEATON, Metropolitan Transportation Authority: Actually, for the subway and for the rail side, assessment is still under way.

Bridges, except for two of them, were reopened today at noon after a full inspection, a safety inspection. Everything was good to go.

RAY SUAREZ: Is any of New York’s extensive subway system running at this point?

CHARLES SEATON: No subway, no commuter rail. We’re starting buses now. We’re ramping up buses for a 5:00 start today. And we will nearly a full schedule of buses, bus service tomorrow.

RAY SUAREZ: The pictures people across the country saw overnight of subway stations underneath water, dirty, salty water, probably had them wondering, how do you get all that out?

CHARLES SEATON: We pump it out. We have three pump trains. We have 300 pumps throughout the system. And we have a vast array of portable pumps, so we try to work on one or two tubes at a time. Actually, a couple of these service tubes, water filled all the way to the ceiling.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the nature of the water itself going to complicate fixing and then running an electric rail system?

CHARLES SEATON: Actually, saltwater is extremely corrosive.

What we tried to do this time and what we actually did was we de-energized the third rail and de-energized all the electric circuits in the tube prior to the storm’s arrival, prior to the arrival of the surge. We are hoping that that will lessen some of the damage.

However, after the water is pumped out, we will do a full inspection. We will take out components, clean them, replace them or repair them as needed. Then we will begin a lengthy testing process.

RAY SUAREZ: That sounds like a really big job. When will you have a prediction for the millions of people who use your system as to when it will be up and running?

CHARLES SEATON: Difficult to say. It is going to be a couple of days at least. We’re working as quickly as we can.

Actually, we wouldn’t have been able to do it as quickly as we will if we had not curtailed service on Sunday.

RAY SUAREZ: New York City is after all built on a cluster of islands. People need to get across bridges, over rivers. Will you lay on extra buses to get people where they need to go?

CHARLES SEATON: We will probably be bringing subway service back incrementally and looking to supplement that with our bus services.

RAY SUAREZ: So, again, sir, how long before you’re able to move large numbers of people around?

CHARLES SEATON: Well, remember, we move 2.5 million people around every day just on buses alone. Subways are another 5.5 million.

Right now, we’re working as hard as we can to get at least some of that subway service back up. But, so far, we don’t have a date. We’re still pumping out water. We’re still in the assessment, inspection and repair phase.

RAY SUAREZ: Charles Seaton of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, thanks for joining us.

CHARLES SEATON: Thank you, Ray. Take care.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m now joined by Katie Zezima of The Associated Press, who rode out the storm on the New Jersey coastline.

Kate, welcome to the program.

All that water that was pushed inland by the storm and the surge tide, is it still around?

KATIE ZEZIMA, The Associated Press: It is. It is, but not — certainly not to the extent that it was last night.

I was in Atlantic City last night. And you would look outside of the hotel and there was about four feet of water around 10:00 last night. And waking up this morning, it was all gone. But that’s not to say it’s completely gone. There are still neighborhoods where there’s quite a bit of water.

And I’m actually in Ocean City, N.J., right now, where there is a lot of water left on the island. Ninth Street, which is a main street down by the boardwalk, is completely flooded, as are a few of the other streets in the downtown.

RAY SUAREZ: Did most people heed Gov. Christie’s request and leave those cities?

KATIE ZEZIMA: In Atlantic City, yes, they did. You know, there were a few people who did stay and who did shelter either at their homes or at one of the last-resort shelters that they had in Atlantic City.

Here in OceanCity, it actually looks like quite a few people stayed. They’re not letting people on the island unless you’re with the press or you have a pressing need to get back. But those who did stay, I saw a number of people jogging on the boardwalk today. I’m watching a family ride their bikes down the street right now.

So, while there’s a lot of standing water and debris from this storm, you know, at least here right now, people seem to be getting back to normal a little bit.

RAY SUAREZ: Give us an idea of what kind of damage there is. There are big, permanent structures, like the hotels and amusement parks and such. But there are also a lot of smaller homes that people visit every summer. What’s it look like?

KATIE ZEZIMA: Well, here, right here in OceanCity right now, there is a marina that has had a lot of damage. There’s a cooler that’s turned over and such.

And, you know, there’s some structural damage on the homes, shingles that have come off and siding. In Atlantic City, there are a number of awnings of restaurants that have been pulled off. But a lot of the catastrophic damage for homeowners is really unseen. And it’s flood damage.

Structurally, in Atlantic City, there is a large piece of the boardwalk that broke away, and it’s just absolutely demolished. It’s not the boardwalk that most people know, where the casinos are, but rather it’s further down. And it was somewhat dilapidated. And there were plans to replace it anyway.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the people who evacuated? Are these communities in a condition where they can come home yet?

KATIE ZEZIMA: Not yet, no. They are not allowed to come into Atlantic City. There’s still a travel ban into the city, and for good — there are still a lot of power lines down. There’s a lot of debris in the roads, you know, from those awnings that fell down. A few traffic lights fell down.

So, there’s a lot of cleanup to be done. And the same goes here in OceanCity. There’s less debris that I have seen, but because there’s so much water, people are not coming back in right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Katie Zezima of The Associated Press, thanks for joining us.

KATIE ZEZIMA: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And our apologies we did have not photos for Ms. Zezima and Mr. Seaton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now the problem that Sandy has caused for air travelers.

Margaret Warner has that.

MARGARET WARNER: At least 17,000 flights have been canceled since Saturday, including nearly 8,000 today.

Jean Medina is with the Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the major U.S. carriers.

Ms. Medina, give us an update on where air travel stands right now this evening. I mean, how many airports remain closed? How many passengers have had their plans derailed?

JEAN MEDINA, Airlines for America: Well, as you noted, a lot of cancellations. And we’re slowly working to bring the network back up.

The biggest challenge for us right now remains New York. The three largest airports in New York are closed and will be closed for some of tomorrow and perhaps all of tomorrow. And that’s a challenge because roughly one-third of the U.S. air travel goes through the New York airports.

So getting those back up and running is going to be the biggest challenge. And others are already up and running. So airports in Philadelphia and Washington are beginning to take service again, which is great news.

MARGARET WARNER: So, why is it proving — I know we’re only a day into this — but difficult to reopen the New York airports? What are the actual — are they just underwater or is there damage?

JEAN MEDINA: Well, evaluating damage, but so, for example, La Guardia has some water on the runways. That needs to be pumped off. And the systems need to be inspected. Both the lighting and landing equipment and the navigation equipment needs to be inspected.

JFK will likely open around noon tomorrow, too. And some aircraft will be coming in there and hopefully starting full service again on Thursday. Newark right now is without commercial power.

So, once commercial power comes back on, then they can the inspect the systems and see when we can begin resuming service there.

One of the other bigger challenges is the public transportation. You know, getting an airport back up and running is more than just getting planes to the airport.

It’s really a very intricate, choreographed ballet between the airlines and the governments and the airports and making sure you can get the workers there.

Most of the workers at the airport rely on public transportation to get to the airport. So you need to have the teams in place. You need to have the planes in place before you can really get the system back up and running again fully.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what should passengers who either had their flights canceled or are holding tickets for flights in, say, the next three days in or through the Northeast to Mid-Atlantic, what should they do?

JEAN MEDINA: First and foremost, be patient. Second, you can always check your carrier’s website. That is where they will have up-to-date information.

And they should also sign up for alerts from the airlines themselves so they can get direct and up-to-date information about what is happening with their flights. Airlines have all put in place the waivers, so if they want to change their travel, they can do so without penalty. If a flight has been canceled for weather, they can also get a full refund if that’s their preference.

And we’re seeing a combination of those things happening between customers who either just opted not to travel, and then, of course, people that are still trying to get back home from wherever they have been.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, I understand too that because all the planes were dispersed from the big New York airports, there’s also a matter of just getting them in position? How long will that take?

JEAN MEDINA: Yes, so the — it shouldn’t take too long.

With a hurricane, much like a snowstorm, we knew about it, it was coming. We were able to plan it in advance, which is why you started seeing cancellations begin on Saturday.

Airlines really don’t want to their passengers stranded at an airport. They’d much rather have them wait out the storm safely at their home or at a hotel. And that’s what happened.

So, they also — in addition to canceling flights, they moved their crews and their planes out of harm’s way, so that they can quickly recover once service is up and running back at an airport.

So you have seen that the major airports did not have planes sitting on the ground. While an aircraft is a huge thing, it can’t endure a direct hit from a hurricane.

So, airlines did a great job of moving their crew and their aircraft out of harm’s way and will be — begin the process tomorrow and yet today of getting crews and planes in place, so that we can resume service as quickly possible.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Jean Medina of Airlines for America, thank you.

JEAN MEDINA: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We have been following Hurricane Sandy’s developments online, where you can watch a slide show of some of the most compelling still photos from the storm.