Sandy death toll at 34; Pa. sending help to neighboring states

The death toll from superstorm Sandy continues to climb. Authorities say at least 34 people have died, many crushed by fallen trees.

A fifth Pennsylvania death has been linked with the hybrid storm still lingering over much of the state as residents deal with massive power outages brought on by whipping winds.

This morning on the “Today” show, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reported that at least three people died in the Garden State as Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore from end to end.

Airlines have canceled more than 15,000 flights, stranding travelers around the world.

“At this point the airlines [at PHL] are still not operating,” said Rina Cutler, Philadelphia’s deputy mayor of transportation and utilities. “I believe there is one international Lufthansa flight which is due in at some point later today. A lot of the airlines are moving airplanes around in order to get them back in position for tomorrow.”

Both the Reuters and Bloomberg news services interviewed insurance industry sources who said East Coast damages from Sandy will outstrip those caused in August 2011 by Irene, and could reach $8 billion.

Complete Sandy Coverage

SEPTA getting back to business

As SEPTA rolls back to life, Cutler said the city is working closely with the transit agency and Amtrak to get service back on the regional rail lines.

“We said over the last couple days that the assessment process would take somewhere in a six- to eight-hour time period,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said, “and quite honestly … SEPTA has actually exceeded expectations. We are most excited about that.”

He said he expected to be able to make a fuller announcement regarding other operations in the city, including schools and other services that have been suspended.

“The SEPTA operation is critical to this city and to this region,” Nutter said. “Mass transit is critical to all operations. It is the way we move people goods and services around this region. … We now see what happens when SEPTA is not able to run.”

As of noon, SEPTA restored service on the Broad Street subway line, the Market-Frankford line and 80 percent of bus routes in the city and some routes in the suburbs.

SEPTA officials said they are cautiously optimistic that they can restores two regional lines, the Media and Airport routes, by tomorrow. The other lines have too much damage, mostly downed trees, which SEPTA crews are working to fix.

SEPTA general manager Joe Casey defended the agency’s decision to shut down service, saying safety had to be the top priority.

Bridges across the Delaware are now open. So is Philadelphia International Airport, but flights will return to normal slowly, beginning this afternoon. The airport advises everyone hoping to fly out of Philadephia today or tomorrow to call their airline to check on flight status.

PATCO and NJ Transit service is still suspended.

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm said the service has crews out assessing the damage in daylight. There are power lines down and trees across the tracks in some areas. Amtrak officials think limited service may return on Wednesday.

Help from Pa.

As Sandy moves north, Gov. Tom Corbett is sending help to neighboring states dealing with major damage in the wake of the storm.

Corbett says Pennsylvania is certainly better off than some coastal states.

“From what I see of the damage going on in New York and New Jersey — the storm surge, the record wave heights, the tide heights — yeah we dodged a bullet, in that respect,” the governor said Tuesday morning. “But anybody who’s without electricity probably is not saying that we dodged a bullet.”

Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency director Glenn Cannon says the commonwealth is sending medical resources to New Jersey upon its request, including 35 ambulances and what’s called a “mass casualty bus.”

It’s “a very large vehicle that allows you to transport more people than you can an ambulance,” Cannon said.

“So it’s not that there are large numbers of dead folks that they’re trying to deal with, that’s not the case, but because we have this very sophisticated piece of equipment in Pennsylvania, they know it, it’s been asked for.

Corbett has opened two “megashelters” at two state system schools for out-of-state evacuees.

“Those are primarily for the New York and New Jersey but if people in the area need it, they can go there,” he said.

One “megashelter” will be at West Chester University and another at East Stroudsburg University. They can hold up to 1,300 and 500 people, respectively.

Nuclear power plants and oil refineries in the eastern half of the state reduced their output but did not shut down as the storm passed over the Delaware Valley.

They are back to normal, according to the governor and the chairman of the Public Utility Commission.

Speed and vehicle restrictions were lifted Tuesday morning on all but Interstate 90 and Interstate 79 in the northwest.

Another 100 National Guard soldiers have been deployed throughout the commonwealth, bringing the total to 1,700.

Corbett said  about 600 people are in shelters statewide, which have the capacity to take in 31,000 people, following warnings of flood dangers and evacuations. He urged residents to stay home while road and utility workers assess damage.

The National Weather Service says breezy and rainy weather will persist through the day but wind gusts aren’t likely to top 30 mph as the storm’s center churns through central Pennsylvania.

Eyes on New Jersey

The Jersey Shore is recovering from the major blow it suffered as Sandy roared ashore Monday night. The Category 1 hurricane eradicated beaches, obliterated dunes, stranded stragglers and darkened millions of homes.

This morning, bulldozers are trying to push the sand back toward the beaches, and officials are assessing damage that Christie termed “incalculable.”

WHYY/NewsWorks’ Alan Tu and Tom McDonald were up early today, touring storm-ravaged sections of South Jersey.

Tu traveled from Princeton through Burlington and Camden Counties down to the Salem nuclear power plant and Cumberland County. Here’s his report:

“Mercer County had many large trees felled, but flooding was surprisingly light. Even flood-prone roads were spared.  The Delaware was higher than usual at Bordentown, but well within its banks.

“The scenes in Cherry Hill, Lawncrest and Magnolia were similar: Downed trees and branches, but less damage than one might expect the morning after a hurricane passed through.   Power outages are widespread, though.

“At the Salem plant, one reactor is offline this morning at the Salem Nuclear Power plant. Coastal flooding apparently  caused four of six water pumps to fail. The pumps draw water from the Delaware River and cool the nuclear fuel.

“The main access road to the plant was temporarily submerged during high tide overnight.Work crews this morning were bringing in more rocks to reinforce the road.

“At noon, Bridgeton was sprinkled with light rain and cold winds.  Again, visible damage is light but many have lost power. Most stores are open, though.”

WHYY/NewsWorks’ Tom McDonald was on the dawn patrol in Atlantic City, Ventor, Margate, Longport and Somers Point today.  Here’s his report:

“For the most part the casinos in Atlantic City seem fine from what I can see.   They used sandbags heavily. there’s some wind damage in the casinos area. Some bus shelters were blown down.

“Flooding in the south end of Atlantic City was minimal. On the north end, it was much worse, near Revel and where the boardwalk was washed away.

“Heading through Ventnor, Margate, and Longport, the wind damage is heavy.

“One woman on a beach block whom I talked to said she experienced 10 feet of water.  She said it was up to within two feet of her deck, and her deck has to be 12 feet up in the air.

“There is no beach in Ventnor; water laps all the way up to the boardwalk.  In Ventnor, and it’s just the same in Margart and Longport, the ocean carried beach sand right over the boardwalks onto the streets. Any street parallel to the board walk is covered in three to six inches of sand.

“At Anchorage Point, a paddle wheel boat was lifted right out of the water and is sitting on the beach.

“The road between Longport and Ocean City is not passable; telephone poles are down.

“The bridge to Ocean City is impassable. The storm lifted the rocks in the seawall right onto the highway going to the bridge. We’re talking about 500-pound boulders sitting right in the road.

“And this is something! At Somers Point, the fishing pier off of New Jersey Avenue, it’s just sitting in the bay.

“Generally, the area is not totally deserted. There are people milling about, looking at the damage.”

The entire length of the Garden State Parkway has reopened. A 129-mile stretch was closed in both directions from Woodbridge to the southern terminus because of flooding caused by Sandy.

Southbound lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike are closed between Exits 10 and 14. The Lincoln Tunnel is open. The Holland Tunnel is closed under further notice. The George Washington Bridge, Goethals Bridge, Bayonne Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing are closed until further notice.

Schools are closed today throughout New Jersey.

Ocean City School District, where there were reports last night of flooded school buildings, will keep its schools closed again tomorrow, said Richard Stepura, Cape May County’s interim executive superintendent. The 15 other school districts in Cape May County will all have to make individual determinations today, Stepura added.

“Each individual community will have to assess if there are any flooding conditions that still exist,” he said.  “They have to check out their buildings to see if there’s any damage or not and to see if they’ve been affected by power outages.  All that will be assessed today to make a determination for tomorrow.”

Outages persist

At least 8.2 million people across the eastern half of the U.S. are without power, including more than a million in Pennsylvania alone, but officials say the worst is over.

Some utility customers in the Philadelphia area could be without power for days. Schools and government offices across the state remain closed.

PECO reports a record number of outages in its service territory: 585,000 customers.

Hardest hit was Bucks County, with 185,000 outages. Montgomery County has about 175,000; Delaware Couny, 86,000;  Chester County, 74,000, and Philadelphia with 65,000.

Christie said a total of 2.4 million households in New Jersey are without power, twice the number from Irene.

The head of PSE&G, the utility with more than 1.2 million New Jersey customers left in the dark by Hurricane Sandy, says it may take a week or more to get power restored to all of them.

In a morning briefing, PSE&G president Ralph LaRossa said the company has about 1,300 employees out assessing the damage and repairing lines from the “biggest storm” PSE&G has ever seen.

He says the utility is focusing on getting the main power lines restored first, then moving on to smaller neighborhoods and streets.

“We will ramp up pretty quickly the number of customers restored,” says LaRossa, “That’s our normal process here. But certainly there will be stragglers that will be last and well past the seven days.”

According to LaRossa, faster repairs will be seen in major cities like Newark and Jersey City, which may be back in a day or so.

The Philly scene

In Philadelphia, the city is quiet and perhaps a bit relieved, with damages so far light compared with the Shore and New York City. 

To this point, the flood-prone Schuylkill is staying within its banks in Manayunk and East Falls.

The storm shelter set up at Cheltenham High School has been closed due to a power outage. In Montgomery County, shelters at Pottstown and Norristown high schools remain open.

Red Cross reports that 619 people and 53 pets were in its shelters around the Philadelphia region as of midnight. The biggest group is at West Philadelphia High School, where 243 people sought shelter. Avon Grove High School in Chester County has a big group, with 58 people.

The city reported that it  has received 16,000 calls on its 311 non-emergency line since yesterday. Normal Monday traffic is about 4,500 calls.

To anyone in lightly hit areas who thinks that metereologists and officials hyped the storm threat, here’s what Accuweather’s Elliot Abrams has to say: You’re wrong.

Sandy still was quite a storm, he said. Some areas just were luckier than others.

“It produced gale-force winds, some gusted past 60 mph,” he said. “Around the region, hundreds of thousands of people lost power. There’s tremendous damage. Downtown Atlantic City was covered with water.”

Abrams says many will still feel gusty winds and showers Tuesday, with the possibility of falling branches. Utility companies are working to restore service, but warned it could take days.

The Delaware aftermath

Much of the damage from Sandy in Delaware was confined to the coastal areas and sections of the state prone to flooding, but Gov. Jack Markell says the state was spared the brunt of the storm.

As a result the state has eased its driving restrictions back to a level 1, which is where the state was before the storm.  That means there has to be a safety, emergency or business reason to be on the road. 

The governor warned that people who were left their home because of an evacuation order or because of flooding should not attempt to go back on Tuesday.  He said it still wasn’t safe to do so.  One of the hardest hit areas was Route 1 in Dewey.  DelDOT officials said it would be another 24 hours before the road could be open.  A lot of sand was blown on to the road.  

DART First State has announced that buses will be running on a Saturday schedule today.

About 40,000 Delmarva Power customers, most in New Castle County, remain without power. Markell had no estimate when power would be restored; wind gusts had to subside so that it was safe for workers to go up in cranes to check lines.  About 900 people are in shelters around Delaware.

—Brian Hickey, Elizabeth Fiedler, Tom MacDonald, Aaron Moselle, John Mussoni, Nichelle Polston, Zack Seward, Alan Tu, Mary Wilson and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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