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, flooding its tunnels, subway stations and the electrical system that powers Wall Street. At least 16 U.S. deaths were blamed on the storm, which brought the presidential campaign to a halt a week before Election Day.
For New York City at least, Sandy was not the dayslong onslaught many had feared, and the wind and rain that sent water sloshing into Manhattan from three sides began dying down within hours.
Sandy knocked out power to at least 5.7 million people, and New York's main utility said large sections of Manhattan had been plunged into darkness. Water pressed into the island from three sides.
Just before its center reached land, the storm was stripped of hurricane status, but the distinction was purely technical, based on its shape and internal temperature. Sandy still packed hurricane-force wind, and forecasters were careful to say it remained every bit as dangerous to the 50 million people in its path.
As Sandy 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 consisting not only of rain and high wind but snow.
Sandy made landfall at 8 p.m. near Atlantic City, which was already mostly under water and saw a piece of its world-famous Boardwalk washed away earlier in the day.
Authorities reported a record surge more than 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 underground electrical network that underlies 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 was hit with blackouts caused by flooding and transformer explosions.
Airlines canceled more than 12,000 flights, disrupting the plans of travelers all over the world, and 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.
Sixteen deaths were reported in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, 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.
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.
The storm lost its status as hurricane because it no longer had a warm core center nor the convection — the upward air movement in the eye — that traditional hurricanes have, but it was still as dangerous as it was when it was considered a hurricane, said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
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 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 situated 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 might have been close to 95 mph.
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.
If the storm reaches the higher estimate of $20 billion in damage, that would put it ahead of Hurricane Irene, which raked the Northeast in August 2011 and caused $16 billion in damage. Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,200 people, cost $108 billion.