Sandy turns thriving New York community into blackened wasteland
THIS is Breezy Point, a neighbourhood of Queens, where, in the early hours of yesterday, up to 100 homes were destroyed in a fire triggered by Hurricane Sandy.
The image, almost post-apocalyptic in its bleakness, captures the ferocity unleashed by a storm that has left much of America’s eastern seaboard, in chaos.
“We were spared,” said one Queens resident, Tom de Maria, as he passed by the remains in Breezy Point. “But all these people have lost their homes. It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything as bad as this.”
As dawn broke in New York yesterday the devastation was only just becoming clear. Streets usually teeming with workers and tourists were instead littered with fallen trees, scattered debris and cars floating in water.
Swathes of the southern tip of Manhattan and the edges of Brooklyn suffered severe damage following a 13ft storm surge that overwhelmed low-lying areas. A city that has so often provided the backdrop for disaster movies was left resembling the set of one.
Some of the best-known streets in the world — Fifth Avenue and Broadway — were silent and empty; millions of residents were without power; and subway tunnels were flooded.
But it was across the East River in Breezy Point where Sandy left its most devastating mark. Firemen told how the storm’s unrelenting 80mph winds caused one house fire to spread along entire streets, obliterating dozens of family homes. “The whole neighbourhood’s gone,” said Arthur Holstrom as he surveyed the scene.
The air was filled with the acrid smell of smoke as some homes still smouldered, and personal belongings were strewn everywhere. No one is yet sure what started the blaze. One theory is that a gas pipe ruptured and exploded in one house and the wind blew embers from house to house. All the properties were wooden.
Pat Lennon of Rockaway Point Fire department was one of almost 200 firemen who fought the blaze for hours. “It went from house to house, real quick," he said. His uniform and face covered in dirt and ash, he said with understatement that it had been "a bad night".
It was unclear last night whether the fires had caused any deaths, but some people in the neighbourhood had chosen to ignore mandatory evacuation calls and had to be rescued.
Tom and Kathleen Owens and their children were among those who chose to stay. When waves of water pummelled the house next door, and its foundations collapsed, they quickly changed their minds. "Suddenly I looked and the house was two feet away from ours and then it slammed into ours," Mr Owens said. "It was terrifying, I was praying." Rescue and fire services got them out, carrying the children into an inflatable boat.
The sight of New Yorkers surveying storm wreckage was one that was replicated across the city yesterday. Lower Manhattan, one of the most visually recognisable areas of the city, was severely hit.
At the entrance of an underground garage, just yards from New York's financial heart of Wall Street, crowds gathered to take photographs of five cars, their roofs only just visible above the floodwater, which sat piled on top of each other.
From their parking spots in the garage, the vehicles appeared to have been engulfed by the water surging inland from the nearby East River and later deposited in a heap.
Just a few hundred metres away is the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel which links downtown Manhattan with the borough of Brooklyn.
The tunnel has a clearance of 12'7". Yesterday morning it was filled to the brim with floodwater. At the entrance ramp, barely visible, was the outline of a van submerged in the water.
As crowds took pictures, a young man in a high-vis vest peered over a railing at the sunken truck. "Damn," he said. "That ain't where I parked it."
The man, whose vest identified him as a member of the city's 'Bridge Operations' unit, explained that he had parked a van at each end of the tunnel the previous evening to stop traffic entering following the closure of the tunnel.
The floodwater, he suggested, had dragged the van almost 20 yards from where he had left it.
Near the tunnel was the Franklin D Roosevelt Drive, one of the busiest roadways in New York City. Yesterday it was deserted, an eerie stretch of desolate highway.
The cobbled streets of South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan were still partly underwater yesterday. The roads which were passable were slippy with oil which had presumably leaked from the cars that had been engulfed by water on Monday night.
Residents in the area told how the water had risen from the East River and surged through the streets before subsiding.
Despite the odd fallen lamppost, many of the bars and shops in the area looked as though they had escaped any obvious signs of damage.
However upon closer inspection the insides of the stores were wrecked, presumably by floodwater which seeped inside the store before subsiding.
Those storefronts which had been smashed by the flood water left the streets scattered with odd debris. Coffee sachets, clothing and even a pair of shop mannequins were scattered across the streets.
On Maiden Lane in the Financial District, Leslie Lindsey, 36, watched late into the night as the East River rose and poured into the Manhattan streets.
"The street was a river," she said "I could hear people screaming and saw cop cars reversing up the street as the water started pouring up the road."
Pointing to a nearby car, which had a tree on its roof, she said: "The water was above the cars. It came all the way up the street and into the lobby of my building. I'm on a high floor, but my car is in the garage and it's still under six feet of water.
"Just seeing that much water pouring towards us was frightening; really scary. But I think we will be lucky because we live close to Wall Street. We'll probably get our power back on before a lot of others."
Among the most pressing concern of New Yorkers is the return of the Subway.
The city's transport hub was suspended on Sunday night with the hope that it would re-open by Wednesday at the latest. Last night the hope that it would reopen even by the end of the week looked forlorn as many downtown Subway stations were submerged.
"It just feels like we are cut off from the rest of the city," Miss Lindsey said.
The residents of lower Manhattan have had much to contend with. The area still bears the physical and emotional scars of 9/11, which took place just a few blocks from the worst-hit area of flooding, now it will undergo a similar rebuilding effort.
It is perhaps a testament to the city that yesterday morning, the clean-up effort had already begun. Refuse collectors and other city officials toured lower Manhattan clearing the streets of debris and attempting to secure smashed storefronts.
Mary Burke, who lives on John Street, said: "When you've been through something like 9/11 this is crisis-light," she smiled, before joking: "But when you consider what we've been through I sometimes think maybe I should move. It seems like you pay a serious toll living here."
Mark Hughes and Barbara McMahon in New York, Telegraph.co.uk