'Frankenstorm' devastation to cost US$50bn

With video and tracker: New York and New Jersey are worst hit after rare superstorm devastates the east coast, killing 38 and leaving eight million without power.

A resident looks over the remains of burned homes in the Breezy Point neighbourhood of New York. Hurricane Sandy will have caused $20bn in property damage and up to $30bn more in lost business.
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WASHINGTON // America began counting the cost yesterday of the freak "Frankenstorm" that killed at least 38 people, left more than eight million without power and paralysed the east coast.

President Obama declared major disaster areas in New York and New Jersey, which bore the brunt of the devastation. A wall of water more than four metres high surged through lower Manhattan, flooded the New York subway and caused an explosion at a power substation. The resulting power cut forced the evacuation of NYU Tisch hospital, and some of the 260 patients had to be carried down 15 flights of stairs.

Water cascaded into the construction pit at the World Trade Centre, and the New York Stock Exchange was closed for a second day. It will reopen today.

The mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said it could be days before power is fully restored and the subway system could be out for up to five days. "Make no mistake about it, this was a devastating storm, maybe the worst we've ever experienced," he said.

Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, said the storm had brought absolute devastation. "There are no words to describe what's been New Jersey's experience over the last 24 hours," he said. "The cost … is incalculable at this point."

The storm will have caused $20 billion (Dh74bn) in property damage and up to $30bn more in lost business, one of the costliest US natural disasters on record, according to IHS Global Insight, a forecasting company.

And just one week from election day, the US presidential campaign has effectively been suspended as both candidates cancelled campaign rallies and promised to put politics aside. Sandy will have an uncertain effect on an election race that remains tied, and poses unforeseen challenges and opportunities to both candidates.

Mr Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are treading carefully in their response to the crisis and both campaigns have urged supporters to donate to the Red Cross.

The president called the storm "heartbreaking for the nation" yesterday and warned that there were still risks of flooding and downed power lines.

He said he had told government officials coordinating the response that there was "no excuse for inaction".

Ten states and the District of Columbia were declared disaster areas, but New York and New Jersey were hardest hit.

A construction crane that collapsed in the high winds on Monday still dangled precariously 74 floors above the streets of midtown Manhattan, and hundreds of people were evacuated as a precaution. And on Staten Island, a tanker ship wound up beached on the shore.

Most major tunnels and bridges in New York were closed, as were schools, Broadway theatres and the three main airports, LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark.

In New Jersey, the storm cut off barrier islands, swept houses from their foundations and washed amusement pier rides into the ocean. It also wrecked several boardwalks up and down the coast, tearing away a section of Atlantic City's famous promenade.

At least 7.3 million homes and businesses were without power up and down the coast after the storm tore down power lines and flooded electricity networks.

The deaths include 17 in New York, two in Maryland, two in Connecticut, four in New Jersey, five in Pennsylvania, one in West Virginia and one from HMS Bounty, which sank off the coast of North Carolina early on Monday.

The captain of the replica ship, which was built for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, is also still missing after the crew was forced to abandon ship. Fourteen crew members were rescued.

A woman in Canada also died when she was hit by flying debris and more than 100,000 Canadians were still without power yesterday.

It will take days for power to be restored to many areas affected by the storm and even longer before the full extent of the damage can be assessed. According to IHA Global Insight, as much as half the damaged property may have been uninsured.

Although weakening as it goes, the storm will continue to bring heavy rain and flooding, said Daniel Brown of the National Hurricane Centre in Miami.

In a measure of the storm's immense size and power, waves on southern Lake Michigan rose to more than six metres. High winds spinning off the edges clobbered the Cleveland area, uprooting trees, cutting power to hundreds of thousands, closing schools and flooding major roads along Lake Erie.

In Portland, Maine, gusts scared away several cruise ships and prompted officials to close the port.

The storm also brought blizzard conditions to parts of West Virginia and neighbouring Appalachian states, with up to a metre of snow expected in some places. A snowstorm in western Maryland caused a pileup of tractor-trailers that blocked part of Interstate 68 on slippery Big Savage Mountain.

"It's like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs up here," said Bill Wiltson, a Maryland State Police dispatcher.

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press