PITTSBURGH — The most devastating storm in decades to hit the country’s most densely populated region upended man and nature as it rolled back the clock on 21st-century lives, cutting off modern communication and leaving millions without power Tuesday.
A weakening Sandy, the hurricane turned fearsome superstorm, killed at least 50 people, many hit by falling trees, and still wasn’t finished. It inched inland across Pennsylvania, ready to bank toward western New York to dump more of its water and likely cause more havoc Tuesday night.
Behind it was a dazed, inundated New York City, a waterlogged Atlantic Coast and a moonscape of disarray and debris, from unmoored shore-town boardwalks to submerged mass-transit systems to delicate presidential politics.
“Nature,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, assessing the damage to his city, “is an awful lot more powerful than we are.”
More than 8.2 million households were without power in 17 states as far west as Michigan. Nearly 2 million of those were in New York, where large swaths of lower Manhattan lost electricity and entire streets ended up under water, as did seven subway tunnels between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said.
The New York Stock Exchange was closed for a second day from weather, the first time that has happened since a blizzard in 1888. The city’s subway system, the lifeblood of more than 5 million residents, was damaged like never before and closed indefinitely, and Consolidated Edison said electricity in and around New York could take a week to restore.
“Everybody knew it was coming. Unfortunately, it was everything they said it was,” said Sal Novello, a construction executive who rode out the storm with his wife, Lori, in the Long Island town of Lindenhurst, and ended up with 7 feet of water in the basement.
The scope of the storm’s damage wasn’t known yet. Though early predictions of river flooding in Sandy’s inland path were petering out, colder weather made snow the main product of Sandy’s slow march from the sea.
Parts of the West Virginia mountains were blanketed with 2 feet of snow by Tuesday afternoon, and drifts 4 feet deep were reported at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee-North Carolina border.
As organized civilization came roaring back Tuesday in the form of emergency response, recharged cellphones and the reassurance of daylight, harrowing stories emerged from Maryland north to Rhode Island in the hours after Sandy’s howling wind and tidal surges shoved water over seaside barriers, into low-lying streets and up from coastal storm drains.
Images from around the storm-affected areas depicted scenes reminiscent of big-budget disaster movies. In Atlantic City, N.J., a gaping hole remained where once a stretch of boardwalk sat by the sea.
In Queens, N.Y., rubble from a fire that destroyed as many as 100 houses in an evacuated beachfront neighborhood jutted into the air at ugly angles against a gray sky. In heavily flooded Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, dozens of yellow cabs sat parked in rows, submerged in murky water to their windshields.
At the ground zero construction site in lower Manhattan, sea water rushed into a gaping hole under harsh floodlights.
In Moonachie, N.J., 10 miles north of Manhattan, water rose to 5 feet within 45 minutes and trapped residents who thought the worst of the storm had passed.
In a measure of its massive size, waves on southern Lake Michigan rose to a record-tying 20.3 feet. High wind spinning off Sandy’s edges clobbered the Cleveland area early Tuesday, uprooting trees, closing schools and flooding major roads along Lake Erie.
By Tuesday afternoon, there were still only hints of the economic impact of the storm. Airports remained closed across the East Coast and far beyond as tens of thousands of travelers found they couldn’t get where they were going.
Sandy began in the Atlantic and knocked around the Caribbean, killing nearly 70 people, and strengthened into a hurricane as it chugged across the southeastern coast of the United States.
By Tuesday night it had ebbed in strength but was joining up with another, more wintry storm, an expected confluence of weather systems that earned it nicknames like “superstorm” and, on Halloween eve, “Frankenstorm.”