On Hamden Ave, a storm-wrecked street on New York City’s Staten Island, everyone was talking about the surge - a wall of water that came tearing down the street on Monday night.
As families picked through mud-caked photo albums and couch cushions, and stared at ruined cars scattered across the neighbourhood, they talked on Thursday about how a little bit of rain suddenly turned into pools of water. Then swelled and kept swelling until the water flooded the first floor of homes.
‘‘We heard this noise and it sounded like a train,’’ said Dawn Rautenstrauch, speaking three days after Sandy, a vicious storm, tore across the East Coast, washing away houses, trees and bridges.
‘‘There was a 10-foot wave carrying cars.’’
The 37-year-old mother of three had been outside smoking a cigarette when the floods came.
She had just enough time to grab her children out of a room in the building’s basement, where they were watching television, and bring them up to safety on the building’s second floor.
‘‘We were listening to people on their roofs screaming for help,’’ said Rautenstrauch, her voice breaking.
‘‘And to think we’re actually the lucky ones. I don’t have nothing, but we’re alive.’’
Staten Island, which lies across New York Harbor from lower Manhattan, is home to about 500,000 residents, many blue-collar workers whose families have lived there for generations.
Few areas were as devastated by the storm in terms of property damage and loss of life; 15 of the 39 New York City residents killed were from Staten Island.
The dead included two boys, aged 2 and 4, who were swept from their mother’s arms by the floodwaters.
HERO OF HAMDEN AVENUE
Most of the hardest hit neighborhoods, including Hamden Avenue, were under evacuation orders. And while residents said they regretted the decision to ignore the order, many said they were surprised the damage was so significant.
When Hurricane Irene swept through this area last year, it hardly left a mark.
‘‘It was like living through Titanic, but on ground,’’ said Krystina Berrios, 25, who works for a home care agency.
‘‘You would never think in a million years having to go through something like this.’’
Berrios lived in an apartment in the basement - though she passed the storm with family on the building’s second floor - and everything she owned was destroyed.
She said she spent Monday night glued to a window, terrified that the water would rise even higher and drown her family. At dawn, Berrios spotted the lights of a rescue crew, and her family was taken to dry land a few blocks inland.
She returned for the first time on Thursday morning, after hearing rumors that vandals were breaking into people’s homes and stealing what had not been destroyed.
If there is a hero on Hamden Avenue, the neighbours said it would be Gus Veintimilla, a 30-year-old sanitation worker. He lives at the end of the street, just a few houses down from his parents.
He was awakened in the aftermath of the storm by the sound of city rescue workers knocking down doors as they helped people from their flooded homes.
But after taking the most severe cases - a mother and father trapped on their roof with their four young children, among others - the team did not return.
Veintimilla spotted a man in a six-foot wooden dingy and asked if he could use it.
Over the next three hours, he delivered his neighbours, family by family, from their flooded homes to dry land.
‘‘I just said,’Get your stuff together. Take whatever you need,’’’ he said.
Some of the neighbours ended up at the home of Teresa Connor, a counselor at Staten Island University Hospital.
‘‘Stupid me, I should have evacuated,’’ said Connor.
She said the force of the approaching water was like nothing she had ever seen before. She said
it knocked down her 136kg husband.
As residents on Thursday began the process of cleaning up their ruined homes, Patrick Donaghue, a 26-year-old from the area who works in Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market, arrived in a car packed with donated clothing and toys, and bags of groceries.
He opened the trunk and told the crowds of people to help themselves.
‘‘It’s devastating,’’ he said.
‘‘A lot of people have lived here for generations. And now, all your memories are gone. It makes you want to cry. You’re at a loss for words.’’
SCALE OF DESTRUCTION
New York City has moved closer to resuming its frenetic pace by getting back its vital subways, three days after a super storm, but neighbouring New Jersey was stunned by coastal devastation and the news of thousands of people in one city still stranded by increasingly fetid flood waters.
The decision to reopen undamaged parts of the United States' largest transit system on Thursday (local time) came as the death toll reached more than 80 in the US and left more than 4.6 million homes and businesses without power. Hurricane Sandy earlier left another at least 69 people dead as it swept through the Caribbean.
The estimate of the storm's economic damage has doubled, with forecasting firm Eqecat saying it could run as high as US$50 billion (NZ$60b).
In New York, people streamed into the city as service began to resume on commuter train and subway. The three major airports resumed at least limited service, and the New York Stock Exchange was open again. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor - the busiest train line in the country - was to take commuters along the heavily populated East Coast again starting on Friday.
But hundreds of people lined up for buses, traffic jammed for kilometres and long petrol lined formed. And the latest deaths reported included two young boys who disappeared on Monday night when waves of water crashed into an SUV.
Hundreds of thousands in New York City alone were still without power, especially in downtown Manhattan, which remained in the dark roughly south of the Empire State Building after floodwaters had knocked out electricity. Con Edison said it was on track to restore power by Saturday.
Concerns rose over the elderly and poor all but trapped on upper floors of housing complexes in the powerless area, who faced pitch-black hallways, elevators and dwindling food. New York's governor ordered deliveries of food and drinking water to help them. New York dipped to about 4 degrees Celsius on Wednesday night.
"Our problem is making sure they know that food is available," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, as officials expressed concern about people having to haul water from fire hydrants up darkened flights of stairs.
"Manhattan is getting back to normal - at least, the parts most people notice," Alex Koppelman wrote for The New Yorker website Thursday in a report on the poor still isolated downtown.
Rima Finzi-Strauss was fleeing her apartment and taking a bus to Washington.
"We had three guys sitting out in the lobby last night with candlelight, and very threatening folks were passing by in the pitch black," she said. "And everyone's leaving. That makes it worse."
In New Jersey, the once-pristine Atlantic coastline famous for Bruce Springsteen and the TV show Jersey Shore was shattered. President Barack Obama joined Governor Chris Christie in a helicopter tour of the devastation and told evacuees, "We are here for you. We are not going to tolerate red tape. We are not going to tolerate bureaucracy."
And warnings rose again about global warming and the prospect of more such severe weather to come.
"The next 50 to 100 years are going to be very different than what we've seen in the past 50 years," said S. Jeffress Williams, a scientist emeritus at the US Geological Survey's Woods Hole Science Center in Massachusetts. The sea level is rising fast, and destructive storms are occurring more frequently, said Williams, who expects things to get even worse.
Across the Hudson River from New York City, the floodwaters were slowly receding in the city of Hoboken, where an estimated 20,000 people had remained in their homes. The National Guard was helping with evacuations, but residents were warned not to walk around in water that was tainted with sewage and chemicals from the heavily industrial region.
New Jersey residents across the state were urged to conserve water. At least 1.7 million customers remained without electricity there, and fights broke out as people waited in long lines for gas.
The super storm's effects, though much weakened, continued on Thursday. Snow drifts as high as 5 1.5 metres piled up in West Virginia, where the former hurricane merged with two winter weather systems as it went inland.
Across the region, people stricken by the storm pulled together, in some cases providing comfort to those left homeless, in others offering hot showers and electrical outlets for charging mobile phones to those without power.
Bloomberg also ordered residents to share cars. Television footage on Thursday showed heavy traffic crawling into Manhattan as police turned away cars that carried fewer than three people - a rule meant to ease the congestion that paralysed the city earlier in the week.
After suffering the worst disaster in its 108-year-old history, the subways were rolling again - at least some of them. More than a dozen of the lines would offer some service, but none below Manhattan's 34th Street.
Commuters lined up at Penn Station to board uptown subway trains at 6am. Technology worker Ronnie Abraham was on one of them.
"It's the lifeline of the city," Abraham said.
But most of New Jersey's mass transit systems remained shut, leaving hundreds of thousands of commuters stuck on clogged highways and in long lines at gas stations. Atlantic City's casinos remained closed.
Signs of the good life that had defined wealthy New Jersey shorefront enclaves lay scattered and broken. Nearly all the homes were seriously damaged, and many had disappeared.
"This," said Harry Typaldos, who owns the Grenville Inn in Mantoloking, "I just can't comprehend."
-AP with Reuters