By Tom Watkins, Josh Levs and Chelsea J. Carter
(CNN) — Five people have now been killed in the state of New York — including a man hit by a tree while inside his Queens home — because of Sandy, said Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Though no longer a hurricane, “post-tropical” superstorm Sandy still packed a hurricane-sized punch as it slammed into the New Jersey coast Monday evening.
Sandy’s 85-mph winds whipped torrents of water over the streets of Atlantic City, stretching for blocks inland and ripping up part of the vacation spot’s fabled boardwalk. It spawned high winds and torrential rains from North Carolina to Maine and knocked out power to more than 2.2 million customers across across 11 states and the District of Columbia.
And it was blamed for the first confirmed U.S. death when a man was killed by a falling tree in the New York borough of Queens, said Frank Dwyer, a spokesman for the city’s Fire Department.
The storm hit land near Atlantic City about 8 p.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center reported. Hurricane-force winds stretched from Cape Cod to the Virginia coast as it swept ashore, with its storm surge setting new high-water records for lower Manhattan and swamping beachfronts on both sides of Long Island Sound.
“I’ve been down here for about 16 years, and it’s shocking what I’m looking at now. It’s unbelievable,” said Montgomery Dahm, owner of the Tun Tavern in Atlantic City, which stayed open as Sandy neared the Jersey Shore. “I mean, there’s cars that are just completely underwater in some of the places I would never believe that there would be water.”
Dahm’s family cleared out of Atlantic City before the storm hit, but he says he stayed put to serve emergency personnel. At nightfall Monday, he said the water was lapping at the steps of his restaurant, where a generator was keeping the lights on.
The storm had already knocked down power lines and tree limbs while still 50 miles offshore and washed out a section of the boardwalk on the north end of town, Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford told CNN. He said there were still “too many people” who didn’t heed instructions to evacuate, and he urged anyone still in town to “hunker down and try to wait this thing out.”
“When Mother Nature sends her wrath your way, we’re at her mercy, and so all we can do is stay prayerful and do the best that we can,” Langford said.
Five things to know about Sandy
In Seaside Heights, about 30 miles north of Atlantic City, Police Chief Thomas Boyd told CNN, “The whole north side of my town is totally under water.”
Sandy’s expected storm surge could raise water levels to 11 feet above normal high tide, already the highest of the month because of a full moon. And forecasters said Sandy was likely to collide with a cold front and spawn a superstorm that could generate flash floods and snowstorms.
Mass transit shut down across the densely populated Northeast, landmarks stood empty and schools and government offices were closed. The National Grid, which provides power to millions of customers, said 60 million people could be affected before it’s over.
“It could be bad,” said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steven Rattior, “or it could be devastation.”
Sandy formed last week and swept across the Caribbean, where it had already claimed at least 67 lives, 51 of them in Haiti. Another two people were missing at sea off North Carolina after the crew of the HMS Bounty, a replica of the historic sailing ship, foundered in the storm, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
In New York, lower Manhattan’s Battery Park recorded a 12.75-foot tide, breaking a record set in 1960 with Hurricane Donna. The city halted service on its bus and train lines, closing schools and ordering about 400,000 people out of their homes in low-lying areas of Manhattan and elsewhere.
On Fire Island, off Long Island, the water was already rising above promenades and docks on Monday afternoon, homeowner Karen Boss said.
Boss stayed on the island with her husband despite a mandatory evacuation order. She said they own several properties and a business there and had weathered previous storms.
“I’m concerned that it might come into the first floor,” she said. “If that’s the case, I’ll just move into another house that’s higher up.”
And New York’s skyscrapers were being battered with higher winds the taller they are: An 80-mph gust at ground level becomes a nearly 100-mph gust at 30 stories up. Far above West 57th Street, a crane snapped and dangled from the side of a luxury high-rise under construction; police closed part of the street and evacuated several nearby buildings, including the Parker Meridien hotel.
The New York Stock Exchange was ordered closed Monday and Tuesday — the first such closure for weather since 1985, when Hurricane Gloria struck.
Based on pressure readings, it’s likely to be the strongest storm to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, CNN senior meteorologist Dave Hennen said.
The benchmark storm, the 1938 “Long Island Express” Hurricane, contained a low pressure reading of 946 millibars. Sandy had a minimum pressure of 943 millibars. Generally speaking, the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.
In Sea Bright, New Jersey, Yvette Cafaro scrawled a plea on the plywood that covered her burger restaurant: “Be kind to us Sandy.” The seaside area largely dodged last year’s Hurricane Irene, but Cafaro was not optimistic that Sea Bright would be spared Sandy.
Meteorological data supported her view: Hours before landfall, storm surge for Sandy was higher than it had been for Irene after landfall.
“Everything that we’ve been watching on the news looks like this one will really get us,” she said. “We’re definitely worried about it.”
Its arrival, eight days before the U.S. presidential election, forced President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to alter or cancel several campaign stops. Obama flew back to Washington from Florida, telling reporters at the White House that assets were in place for an effective response to the storm.
“The most important message I have for the public right now is please listen to what your state and local officials are saying,” Obama said. “When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate.”
And in Ohio, Romney asked supporters to drop off items and cash at his “victory centers” to be donated to victims of the storm.
“There are families in harm’s way that will be hurt — either in their possessions or perhaps in something more severe,” Romney said.
By Monday afternoon, 23 states were under a warning or advisory for wind related to Sandy. Thousands of flights had been canceled, and hundreds of roads and highways were expected to flood. And according to a government model, Sandy’s wind damage alone could cause more than $7 billion in economic loss.
Sandy was expected to weaken once it moves inland, but the center was expected to move slowly northward, meaning gusty winds and heavy rain would continue through Wednesday.
On the western side of the storm, the mountains of West Virginia expected up to 3 feet of snow and the mountains of southwestern Virginia to the Kentucky state line could see up to 2 feet. Twelve to 18 inches of snow were expected in the mountains near the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
“This is not a typical storm,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. “Essentially, this is a hurricane wrapped in a ‘nor’easter.'”
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Michael Holmes, Jareen Iman, Alison Kosik, Sarah Dillingham, Brandon Miller, George Howell, Athena Jones, Shawn Nottingham and Devon Saye
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