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Northeast Copes With Devastating Damage, Widespread Power Outages After Sandy

October 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Though foul weather cleared in the Northeast, the death toll rose to at least 63, people faced property destruction and suspension of transportation and millions still had no power. Judy Woodruff reports on Sandy's aftermath and Gwen Ifill talks to Warren Levinson of The Associated Press for more on the situation in New York.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. death toll from the giant storm named Sandy has risen to at least 63 today. About 6.5 million homes and businesses are still without electricity, though there were signs of daily life returning to its usual rhythm in some places.

A familiar sound returned to Lower Manhattan streets last night.


JUDY WOODRUFF: The power didn’t. Police helped direct traffic with signals still dark, but one taxi driver said it wasn’t worth the risk.

MAN: It’s been dangerous. I have got to go home. I can walk. There’s no traffic signal light, no nothing there.

QUESTION: You’re going home? You’re done?

MAN: I’m done already.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It wasn’t much easier for pedestrians who made their way on foot, some with only flashlights leading the way.

MAN: It’s really unsettling because we don’t have power. We don’t know what’s going on. We don’t have anywhere to get to televisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Many people flocked to mobile charging stations across the city, plugging in cell phones and other devices. But today brought some sign of things slowly returning to normal in the Big Apple.

This morning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg rang the opening bell on Wall Street, where activity returned to the trading floor. Commuters crowded near bus stops with routes now up and running. Others walked across city bridges alongside cars snarled in traffic jams. Some Broadway shows returned to the stage as well. The subway system remains closed, as crews work to clear stations that are still flooded, a task New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said is being prioritized.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, D-N.Y.: Getting the water out of the tunnels is probably the main — one of the main orders of business right now. These are significant challenges that we’re facing and problems, in many cases, that we have never experienced before or not in a generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cuomo announced limited subway service will start Thursday morning.

Flooding kept La Guardia airport closed. JFK and Newark airports have resumed some travel. And high waters led to a number of rooftop rescues of trapped residents yesterday in Staten Island. Late today, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said most bridges and tunnels will be restricted to high-occupancy vehicles for the next several days. But he said his city is on the road to recovery.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York: The bottom line is, we have lost some people. We have to make sure we help their families and pray for them. We at the same time have to make sure that we go forward here and keep this city going. It’s making sure that the tourists come here, that we have visitors, that we have jobs for people. Those are the things that we have to do. And we can do them in the name of those we lost. Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In New Jersey, aerial views of helicopters revealed scenes of total devastation, entire neighborhoods underwater in OceanCounty, an amusement park along the JerseyShore in SeasideHeights in disarray, with some rides washed away by the waves.

Those displaced by the storm have been taking shelter in gymnasiums and other facilities.

WOMAN: We never went trough anything like this. We may have had a storm where it blew a couple of things back and forth, but for us to be flooded out of our homes, animals all over the place, disheveled.

MAN: I’m 69 years old, and it’s the worst that I have ever seen it in my life.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: Halloween on Monday in New Jersey, all right?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie met with residents in Sayreville. Many he spoke to were in tears.

WOMAN: I have got nothing left, memories or anything else. Everything’s ruined, ruined.

CHRIS CHRISTIE: I wanted to come and see Sayreville today before I see the president this afternoon. I want him to understand that it’s not just the Jersey Shore that’s been devastated, but other parts of our state as well that were damaged by the storm surge. He can’t be everywhere obviously across the state today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A short time later, Gov. Christie greeted President Obama and Federal Emergency Management Agency head Craig Fugate in Atlantic City. The trio toured the storm damage along the coast.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We’re going to have a lot of work to do. I don’t want anybody to feel that somehow this is all going to get cleaned up overnight. We want to make sure that people have realistic expectations.

But what I can promise you is that the federal government will be working as closely as possible with the state and local officials, and we will not quit until this is done. And the directive that I have given — and I said this yesterday, but I will repeat — and I think Craig and others who are working with me right now know I mean it — we are not going to tolerate red tape, we’re not going to tolerate bureaucracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, Republican Mitt Romney returned to the campaign trail today with three events in Florida. The GOP presidential nominee also mentioned the ongoing recovery in the Northeast.

MITT ROMNEY (R): This is — this is quite a time for the country, as you know. We’re — we’re going through trauma in a major part of the country, a kind of trauma you have experienced here in Florida more than once. And — and it’s interesting to see how people come together in a circumstance like this. We have seen folks from all over the country step forward and — and offer contributions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bumps in the recovery were evident in New York City late today, where the public BellevueHospital started evacuating about 500 patients because of deteriorating conditions.

GWEN IFILL: A short time ago, Governor Cuomo confirmed that New York’s La Guardia Airport will open for some flights tomorrow morning.

For more on today’s developments, we’re joined again tonight by Warren Levinson of the Associated Press. He’s been making his way around New York City today, and is just back from a trip to the evacuated BellevueHospital.

Warren, what do we know about why they decided to send patients away?

WARREN LEVINSON, The Associated Press: Well, we’re not getting a lot of information from the hospital, Gwen, but essentially what happened is just like New YorkUniversityHospital up the road from them, they lost power when the storm hit.

They had emergency generators. More of their emergency generators than NYUHospital were working, and so they were able to maintain power. But when they took a really hard look what’s going on the basement, they realized, we have got 17 million gallons of seawater in here and these generators are not going to hold up.

So, discretion being the better part of valor, they’re moving patients. It’s a massive undertaking and probably won’t be done for a day or so, nearly 500 patients who have to go. They were, as the storm was approaching, diverting patients to other hospitals, but it’s a laborious process to find a bed for somebody and then get that person into an ambulance and move them out, starting with the sickest.

GWEN IFILL: Seventeen million gallons of seawater sounds amazing, actually.

I want to ask you about two other things that Mayor Bloomberg talked about today in his briefings. One is that if you want to get in a car and drive into Manhattan tomorrow, there are now limitations. What are those limitations?

WARREN LEVINSON: The limitations are that starting at 6:00 in the morning, it’s three people per vehicle. Apparently, police will be there keeping you from getting into the city, getting into Manhattan. If you try, they will pull you over, won’t let you in, and all the other drivers will whiz by. That’s mainly it.

What we saw today was an increase in traffic as people wanting to get back to some sense of normality getting around, because we still don’t have subways. We do have buses, but the buses that I saw today were really, really packed and mainly sitting in traffic.

GWEN IFILL: And the other thing that the mayor talked about was that he is canceling the opening tip for the basketball game in Brooklyn this weekend, but that he’s not canceling the New York Marathon, which is supposed to take place this weekend. What’s the reasoning behind those two decisions?

WARREN LEVINSON: Well, the marathon is Sunday.


WARREN LEVINSON: Well, the marathon is Sunday, so that you have a little bit more time to get ready for it.

The basketball game is tomorrow — or was to be tomorrow night. The key thing with the basketball game is that the great selling point of the new arena in Brooklyn is it sits on top of 11 mass transit lines. None of them are running. The hope is, I suppose, that the marathon can somehow get it together, that it mostly goes through major roads and that they will be mostly clear for marathon runners.

It will be a big question, a big challenge, first of all, for them getting here from somewhere else, especially if they’re flying in, and of course, people supporting them getting to where they want to see them on the course. It’s going to be awfully difficult.

GWEN IFILL: Warren, it looks like almost a tale of two cities. Behind you, we can see the skyline of New York, but we also know that there’s a huge swathe of the city still operating without power, without juice, without anything that approaches what you describe as normalcy.

As you were traveling around the city today, how did that manifest itself?

WARREN LEVINSON: The thing that I saw that stands out to me is the number of people that I saw gathered around fire hydrants getting water into any container they could manage, because they haven’t got water in their homes.

In fact, we even saw kids in Halloween costumes with their Halloween buckets held up to the fire hydrant to get water because they’d run out of buckets at home.

GWEN IFILL: How about gas lines? We have been hearing that gasoline is getting harder to come by.

WARREN LEVINSON: We hear that gasoline is harder to come by. I didn’t personally see any gas lines, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Awfully difficult to deliver gasoline under these circumstances.

GWEN IFILL: Are any officials at this point, other than the reopening that we saw late this afternoon of La Guardia and the partial opening of the other two airports, are any officials beginning to give any kind of timetable of when we are going to see full operation of subways, other transit lines, of bridges, of tunnels?

WARREN LEVINSON: Anybody who gives an actual specific deadline for when things will actually be fully running is living in a fool’s paradise.

The problem really is not just that there’s damage, not just that there’s water. You can kind of figure out how long it will take water to be pumped out, but then you can’t — you can’t know until the water is pumped out and you closely inspect equipment how much damage there is underneath.

GWEN IFILL: And one final kind of experiential thing. Are people frustrated or are they taking this in stride? What is the mood of the people you have been talking to on the street today?

WARREN LEVINSON: Well, Gwen, you have seen what happens in disasters. At first, it’s a break in the routine. It’s bad, but if everybody is OK, it’s kind of a party, it’s kind of different.

But after a while, it gets frustrating. You get out of the things that make your life work and it makes you unhappy. You saw the frustration in people you talked to where they’re kind of struggling to recover from the storm. So the longer it goes on, the more the frustration level will build up.

We haven’t really seen it break at any point or explode at any point, but it’s not all that far away.

GWEN IFILL: Warren Levinson of the Associated Press, thanks so much.