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Updated: October 29, 2012 9:22PM
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — 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, threatening its subways and the electrical system that powers Wall Street.
At least 10 U.S. deaths were blamed on the storm.
Sandy knocked out power to at least 3.1 million people across the East, and large sections of Manhattan were plunged into darkness.
Shortly after the massive storm made landfall in southern New Jersey, Consolidated Edison cut power to about 6,500 customers in downtown Manhattan to avert further damage. Then, huge swaths of the city went dark; 250,000 customers in Manhattan lost power, Con Ed spokesman Chris Olert said.
An additional 1 million customers lost power earlier Monday in New York City, the northern suburbs and coastal Long Island, where floodwaters swamped cars, downed trees and put neighborhoods under water.
By Monday night, only one death from the storm had been reported in New York City: a man who died when a tree fell on his home in the Flushing section of Queens.
Just before the storm’s center 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 winds, and forecasters were careful to say it remained every bit as dangerous to the 50 million people in its path.
As the storm closed in, 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. It also converged with a cold-weather system that turned it into a superstorm, a monstrous hybrid of rain, high wind and snow.
Sandy made landfall at 8 p.m. near Atlantic City, which already was mostly under water. A 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.
The subway system was shut down Sunday night, and the stock markets closed for Monday and Tuesday.
The surge hit New York City hours after a construction crane atop a luxury high-rise collapsed in the wind and dangled precariously 74 floors above the street. Forecasters said the wind at the top the building may have been close to 95 mph.
As the storm drew near, airlines canceled more than 12,000 flights, disrupting the plans of travelers all over the world.
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.
Ten deaths were reported in New Jersey, New York, 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,” Obama 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 he advised people who didn’t evacuate the barrier islands to “hunker down” until morning.
“I hope, I pray, that there won’t be any loss of life because of it,” he said.
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 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.
A construction crane atop a luxury high-rise in New York City collapsed in the wind and dangled precariously 74 floors above the street. Forecasters said the wind at the top the building may have been close to 95 mph.
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 later but was unresponsive. The captain was missing.
At Cape May, water sloshed over the seawall, and it punched through dunes in other seaside communities.
In Maryland, at least 100 feet of a fishing pier at the beach resort of Ocean City was destroyed, and Gov. Martin O’Malley said there would be devastating flooding from the swollen Chesapeake Bay.
At least half a million people had been ordered to evacuate, including 375,000 from low-lying parts of New York City, and by the afternoon authorities were warning that it could be too late for people who had not left already.