John Minchillo, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Much of New York was plunged into darkness Monday by a superstorm that overflowed the city's historic waterfront, flooded the financial district and subway tunnels and cut power to hundreds of thousands of people.
The city had shut its mass transit system, schools, the stock exchange and Broadway and ordered hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to leave home to get out of the way of the superstorm Sandy as it zeroed in on the nation's largest city.
Residents spent much of the day trying to salvage normal routines, jogging and snapping pictures of the water while officials warned the worst of the storm had not hit.
By evening, a record 13-foot storm surge was threatening Manhattan's southern tip, howling winds had left a crane hanging from a high-rise and utilities deliberately darkened part of downtown Manhattan to avoid storm damage.
"It's really a complete ghost town now," said Stephen Weisbrot, from a powerless 10th-floor apartment in lower Manhattan.
Water lapped over the seawall in Battery Park City, flooding rail yards, subway tracks, tunnels and roads. Rescue workers floated bright orange rafts down flooded downtown streets, while police officers rolled slowly down the street with loudspeakers telling people to go home.
"Now it's really turning into something," said Brian Damianakes, taking shelter in an ATM vestibule and watching a trash can blow down the street in Battery Park before the storm surge.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the surge was expected to recede by midnight, after exceeding an original expectation of 11 feet.
"We knew that this was going to be a very dangerous storm, and the storm has met our expectations," he said. "This is a once-in-a-long-time storm."
About 670,000 customers were without power late Monday in the city and suburban Westchester County.
"This will be one for the record books," said John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations at ConEdison. "This will be the largest storm-related outage in our history."
Because a customer is defined as an individual meter, the actual number of people affected is probably much higher.
It could be several days to a week before all residents who lost power during the storm get their lights back, Miksad said.
Shortly after the massive storm made landfall in southern New Jersey, Consolidated Edison cut power deliberately to about 6,500 customers in downtown Manhattan to avert further damage. Soon, huge swaths of the city went dark.
New York University's hospital lost backup power, Bloomberg said. Late Monday, an explosion at a substation at 14th Street and FDR Drive contributed to the outages. No one was injured, and ConEd did not know whether the explosion was caused by flooding or by flying debris.
The underground power lines that deliver electricity to much of New York City are much less vulnerable to outages than overhead lines because they aren't exposed to wind and falling trees or branches. But when damaged, they are harder to repair because the equipment is more difficult to access.
If substations are flooded while in operation, the equipment will fail and need to be replaced. If they are shut down in advance, workers can more quickly power up the machinery and restore service after floodwaters have receded.
After a backup generator failed, New York University's Tisch Hospital began evacuating more than 200 patients to other facilities, including 20 babies from neonatal intensive care, some of them on respirators operating on battery power.
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