A tornado has swept out of the sea and hit a beachfront neighbourhood in New York City, hurling debris in the air, knocking out power and startling residents who once thought of twisters as a Midwestern phenomenon.
Firefighters were still assessing the damage, but no serious injuries were reported and the area affected by the storm appeared small.
Videos taken by bystanders showed a funnel cloud sucking up water, then sand, and then small pieces of buildings, as it moved through the Breezy Point section of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens.
Residents had advance notice. The National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for Queens and Brooklyn at around 10.40am (2.40am today, NZ time). The storm took people by surprise anyway when it struck about 30 minutes later.
"I was showing videos of tornados to my four-year-old on my phone, and two minutes later, it hit," said neighbourhood resident Peter Maloney. "Just like they always say, it sounded like a train."
In the storm's wake, the community of seaside bungalows was littered with broken flower pots, knocked-down fences and smashed windows.
At the Breezy Point Surf Club, the tornado ripped the roofs off rows of cabanas, scattered deck chairs and left a heavy metal barbecue and propane tank sitting in the middle of a softball field, at least 100 yards from any nearby home.
"It picked up picnic benches. It picked up Dumpsters," said the club's general manager, Thomas Sullivan.
Half an hour later the weather was beautiful, but he had to close the club to clean up the damage.
The tornado struck as part of a line of storms that were expected to bring damaging winds, hail, heavy rain and possibly more tornados throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast on Saturday. Across New York state, in Buffalo, strong winds from a broad front of thunderstorms blew roofing off of some buildings and sent bricks falling into the street.
The storm system killed four people, including a child, in Oklahoma on Friday (Saturday, NZ time).
Radar data, video and witness reports confirmed that the cyclone that hit New York City was a tornado, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Hofmann said. He said an inspection team would assess the damage and before estimating the strength of the storm. Hofmann said some witnesses were reporting that the wind had been strong enough to lift cars off the pavement.
Lizann Maher, a worker at Kennedy's Restaurant at the edge of Jamaica Bay, said she saw a "swirling cone kind of thing with something flying in it" come down and then head back out into the water toward Brooklyn.
"It was scary. We have all glass so we kept saying, 'Get away from the glass!' just in case it did come back around," she said.
Tornados were once exceedingly rare in New York, but they have occurred with regularity in recent years. A small tornado uprooted trees on Long Island last month. In 2010, a September storm spawned two tornados that knocked down thousands of trees and blew off a few rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens. A small tornado struck the same year in the Bronx. In 2007, a more powerful tornado damaged homes in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
The storm delayed play at the US Open tennis tournament a few kilometres away. The women's final, scheduled for today (NZ time) night, was postponed until tomorrow morning (NZ time) because of a forecast of additional rain.