Mayor Nutter: ‘It could have been worse’

Posted: October 31, 2012

SANDY MAY HAVE delivered a vicious left hook to the Jersey Shore while landing a sharp jab on New York City, but the massive Atlantic hellstorm-of-the-century softened its blows considerably as it swept over Philadelphia late Monday night.

City residents awoke to a soggy and unpleasant hangover of downed trees and scattered power outages, but no fatalities and few injuries. Sandy didn't come close to toppling storm records, as it did along the coastline, even as the center of the ex-hurricane passed right over Philadelphia.

"It could have been worse, but we came through it pretty well," said Mayor Nutter after touring storm-damaged sites across the city. Officials reported Tuesday afternoon that about 65,000 PECO customers were without electricity – mostly due to power lines felled by some of the 340 trees reported toppled around town.

Locally, the weather impact of the superstorm formerly known as Hurricane Sandy was less than the weekend's dire predictions. The rainfall posted at Philadelphia International Airport was 2.68 inches on Monday – substantial but about one-fourth of what came down at Wildwood Crest down the shore, and much less than the 4.84 inches recorded locally in August 2011 for a storm that didn't even have a name. The strongest gust of wind here was a 70-mph blast recorded at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

As a result, flooding in low-lying sections of the city was also far less than worst-case scenarios. Although 380 residents of flood-prone areas such as Eastwick spent Monday night in city-run shelters, many returned home Tuesday to find little or even no storm damage.

As news reports about Sandy's devastation in parts of New York and New Jersey streamed across a television inside the Hilton Philadelphia Airport hotel, on Island Avenue, where Martha Robertson and her disabled husband rode out the storm, she couldn't help but wonder what was happening to her Eastwick home. It didn't help their anxiety when the couple had to change rooms four times due to leaks in some of the rooms.

"I was thinking to myself: What's going on in my house when this hotel was leaking?" she said. But to her surprise, she returned home Tuesday to find that her house on Saturn Place near 78th Street was just as she had left it. "It was a miracle on Saturn Place," said Robertson, 63. "It couldn't be anything but an act of God we didn't flood."

But the freakish October storm cut a more-destructive path through the Philadelphia suburbs, especially sections of Bucks and Montgomery counties north and northwest of the city, where Sandy was a bit more powerful and where historic trees toppled like matchsticks. It was there that the region's lone fatality occurred, when a 90-year-old woman succumbed to carbon-monoxide fumes from a nearby generator.

The woman, whose name had not been released as of Tuesday evening, was found unconscious in a hospital bed on the first floor of the home on Charlestown Drive in the Swedeland section of Upper Merion, township police said. A portable gas-powered generator was set up in the garage of the house after the power had gone out around midnight, a preliminary investigation showed. In a tragic irony, the generator had been installed so the elderly resident would have a light in case she got up in the middle of the night, authorities said.

About 170,000 homes lost power in Montgomery County, a fraction of an estimated 8 million households in 17 states as far west as Michigan that were without electricity as the outer bands of the epic 1,000-mile storm caused blizzard conditions in the mountains of Appalachia.

Nationally, the storm that continued to meander north on Tuesday across central Pennsylvania on a path toward Canada was blamed for at least 50 deaths in the United States. The greatest long-term impact may be felt in New York City, where a record 12-foot storm surge flooded subway lines in Manhattan that officials said would be out of commission for some time.

Sandy also distracted the northeastern third of the nation from a hotly contested presidential election that will take place Tuesday, although politics may bleed into disaster relief when President Obama tours ravaged sections of the Jersey Shore with that state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, on Wednesday.

Locally, the theme of the day on Wednesday will be getting things back to normal. Most facilities that were closed on Monday and Tuesday – Philadelphia City Hall and government services, trash collection, public, private and parochial schools, colleges and universities – were slated to reopen. The Philadelphia Housing Authority will be open Wednesday. Many transportation options – including SEPTA buses and subways and Philadelphia International Airport - started limping back Tuesday, with regional rail service resuming with some expected delays on Wednesday.

On Monday, Philadelphia's emergency 3-1-1 call center received nearly 9,000 calls. On a typical Monday, it gets about 4,500 calls for problems like potholes and broken streetlights.

The center was so busy that 3-1-1 director Rosetta Lue was even taking calls on her cellphone. "I'm actually the director," she told a resident on Tuesday. "Normally, you would call into 3-1-1. But it's not a problem."

It's likely that many of those calls came from Northeast Philadelphia, where the storm seemed to pack a stronger wallop. Many towering trees sliced through power lines in Rhawnhurst, Bustleton and Somerton. In Somerton, Sol Rosen sat in his kitchen watching CNN coverage of the storm's damage to the shore and dealt with the news on his homefront - a roughly 30-foot tree that collapsed onto his house Monday night.

"I thought it was thunder outside, then all of a sudden, I went to close the blinds and saw people taking pictures outside," Rosen said, adding that he built his Verree Road home nearly four decades ago. "I opened the door and saw . . . That tree is 38 years old. It's been here since we built the house."

The only storm-related injury in Delaware County was to a 2-month old child who was injured when a tree fell through the roof of a home in Upper Darby on Monday morning. The child suffered cuts from branches and was taken to an area hospital, but her injuries were not life-threatening. Perhaps the most harrowing call was in Collingdale, where a downed, live wire trapped 28 residents of two apartment buildings and one house for an hour while their roofs were ablaze in a three-alarm fire, said Collingdale Police Chief Bob Adams. PECO crews arrived and de-energized the lines about an hour after the incident began at 9:30 p.m. Monday, and no one was hurt.

But for many, Tuesday was a day to venture forth and check out the damage, especially near Penn's Landing, where the Delaware River crested at a record 10.62 feet and caused minor flooding. Mike Balcerzak and his wife Karin Tyburczy of South Philadelphia were among a small number of people out and about Tuesday near the river, drinking coffee and walking with their mixed chihuahuas, Charley and Bagel.

"We kind of wanted to take a longer walk and see if there was any sort of damage and see the impact of the storm," said Balcerzak, 31.

"That, and we had cabin fever," added Tyburczy, 32.

- Contributing to this report were staff writers Mensah M. Dean, Dana DiFilippo, Stephanie Farr, Barbara Laker, Catherine Lucey, Regina Medina, Jan Ransom and Morgan Zalot, Holly Otterbein of "It's Our Money," and the Associated Press.

Contact Will Bunch at or 215-854-2957. Follow him on Twitter @Will_Bunch. Read his blog at

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