Angry Hurricane Sandy unleashes her unprecedented fury

Message of hope on the door of house on Main Street in Manayunk.
Message of hope on the door of house on Main Street in Manayunk. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / STAFF)
Posted: October 31, 2012

HURRICANE SANDY - the once-in-a-lifetime hellstorm that the East Coast had feared - slammed into the Jersey Shore like a 90-mph freight train Monday night and headed into the Philadelphia area, capping a day of unprecedented devastation that flooded the coastal barrier islands from ocean to bay and ripped apart a large chunk of Atlantic City's historic Boardwalk.

The freak of nature - by one key measure the most powerful storm to hit the northeastern U.S. since humans began keeping records - was churning on a path directly toward the city, where anxious residents packed impromptu shelters amid torrential rain, winds gusting to nearly 80 mph, and the likelihood that hundreds of thousands in the region would be without power for days.

As of 9 p.m. Monday, Peco was reporting about 15,000 customers without power in Philadelphia. In Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, 1.7 million residents were without power, authorities reported as of 8:15 p.m.

One fatality was reported - in New York City, where a Queens man was killed when a tree fell on his house. But it may take days for rescue teams to uncover the full extent of injuries - especially along sections of the Atlantic coastline from Cape May to New York City, where initial storm surges Monday toppled all-time records and were expected to worsen. The storm surge in Manhattan of 12 feet topped a record set in 1821.

Sandy made landfall between 6 and 7 p.m. Monday near Long Beach Island, N.J., at high tide under a full moon. Some of the most dangerous conditions were reported in Seaside Heights, Long Beach Island and Atlantic City, where giant waves broke over what was left of the Boardwalk.

In Philadelphia, the brunt of the storm approached slowly amid a driving and persistent rain. Many city residents raced to their neighborhood laundry business or drove around at the last minute in search of generators before the worst arrived.

At the Lowe's store on Roosevelt Boulevard near Grant Avenue, employees helped Bob Woudenberg, 39, load a generator into his car. "I've been running around trying to get a generator the past few days with no luck. I probably should have been more proactive a week or so ago," Woudenberg said with a laugh.

He'd come in from Collegeville, hunting for a generator to power a basement sump pump. He bought a more powerful - and pricey - unit for $1,300, because that's what they had.

But virtually everything else was closed: public, parochial and private schools, colleges and universities, City Hall and non-emergency governmental functions, SEPTA and other transit systems, Amtrak, Philadelphia International Airport and other East Coast air hubs, the New York financial exchanges and many stores and offices. Interstate highways in and around Philadelphia were shut down as of 7 p.m. but were expected to reopen by 2 a.m. Tuesday.

"This is not a time for us to be out pretty much doing anything, let alone going to work," Mayor Nutter told a news conference Monday afternoon as he urged Philadelphians to stay put or take shelter if they live in low-lying flood-prone areas.

As rain swells whipped West Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, a steady stream of the weather-weary made their way to the city shelter at West Philadelphia High School. Among the parents and children was Mark Jones, 53, who normally sleeps in Center City subway stations because he fears the chaotic conditions in homeless shelters.

"This is 10 times better than the homeless shelters. This gives the truly homeless two to three days of rest. Normally we only get one to two hours of sleep a night before the SEPTA police put us out," said Jones, standing at the doorway of the shelter.

At a shelter in Cheltenham High School in Montgomery County, Pamela Briggs, 57, who is disabled and lives in a flood-prone area of Flourtown, was among the visitors. She'd moved to the region in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina had devastated her Mississippi home, and she didn't expect to be fending off a hurricane here. "I would have preferred a blizzard," she said. "I can handle that a lot better."

In Delaware County, it's usually Darby Borough that suffers the most because of the vexatious Darby Creek, which often overflows its banks.

Evacuees began showing up at Darby Community Center at 8:45 a.m., as police cleared the Darby Court Apartments and streets near Darby Creek.

April Overton, her three children and her mother all went to the shelter after being evacuated from their home, into which they moved just two months ago.

At a Meineke shop near Darby Creek, they were battening down the hatches for the fourth or fifth time in owner Al Taskin's memory. Taskin, 46, of Wilmington, Del., said that if the region got 4 to 10 inches as predicted, "this location will definitely go under."

In Upper Darby, weather-related trouble started early Monday morning, when an infant was injured after a massive tree fell on two houses on School Lane near Burmont Road about 5 a.m.

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood said the tree fell through the roof of one of the houses into a second-floor bedroom, where the 2-month-old girl was sleeping. She suffered cuts above her eye and was taken to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where she remained for observation Monday night.

The same tree damaged the house next door to where the infant lived, and caused a major gas-main leak that forced the residents to evacuate, Chitwood said.

By 8 p.m., Darby officials were cautiously optimistic about Darby Creek, which had yet to overflow its banks.

At an evening news conference, Darby Police Chief Robert Smythe said the creek seemed to be rising slowly and moving "at a much more even keel" than in previous storms.

"I feel like I dodged a bullet right now," he said. "But this is Darby; anything can happen."

- Also contributing to this report were staff writers Mensah M. Dean, Dana DiFilippo, Stephanie Farr, Michael Hinkelman, Barbara Laker, Regina Medina and Morgan Zalot.


Contact Will Bunch at bunchw@phillynews.com or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch.

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