Residents, utility crews and railroad employees worked doggedly to clean up debris Friday after a brief but fierce storm barreled through the city, tearing up trees, stripping roofs from homes, disrupting train service and killing at least one person.
The National Weather Service planned to spend the day investigating whether a tornado touched down Thursday evening during the storm. Tornado warnings had been issued for Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens. Federal authorities confirmed that a tornado did strike New Jersey.
NBCNewYork spoke with the National Weather Service's Gary Conte, the meteorologist who will be heading up the team assessing whether in fact a tornado did touch down in the city. Conte said the team expects to meet with the city's Office of Emergency Management at about 12 p.m. today before going out to survey the damage, and that they don't expect to have made a determination before late this afternoon.
Officials at Long Island Rail Road, the nation's largest commuter rail line, said crews worked through the night to clear tracks of fallen trees, which caused service to be suspended temporarily between Penn Station in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens. Full service was restored around 5 a.m. Friday. All service on the Port Washington branch has been restored after having been partially shut down Friday morning while the city suspended alternate side parking regulations to facilitate storm cleanup.
Nearly 30,000 customers remained without power on Friday, Consolidated Edison spokesman Bob McGee said. He said hardest hit was Queens, with nearly 27,000 outages. At the height of the storm, a total of 44,000 customers were without power. Crews would be working to restore power throughout the day, she said.
Downed trees were much of the problem. A stretch along 35th Avenue between 156th and 157th Streets in Flushing was littered with massive fallen trees and a telephone pole. Two cars were crushed in less than 20 seconds.
"It was very surreal, like someone took the tops off the trees, trees down ... and threw them onto the ground," one Forest Hills resident said. "It's unbelievable, unbelievable, stumps 14, 15 feet ... pulled out of the ground. I'm in awe, in awe."
There was no power on 204th Street just off Northern Boulevard by late Friday morning. Huge trees took power line swith them as they toppled over. And that's not the only trouble. Heated wires from a nearby downed power pole sparked a fire at a home in Flushing.
"They had to knock down walls ... there's water damage ... here and upstairs," said Diane Zdesar, the homeowner's daughter, as she remarked on the extensive damage.
FDNY Battalian 52 Chief Dennis Crichton said the wires heated up and caused a fire on the first and second floors.
"It was a small fire, but the house is still electrified," Crichton said. "We have to kill the power. That's what we've bene waiting on for a few hours."
Debris from the storm littered a stretch along 35th Avenue near 157th Street -- and David Ha says it all happened in less than 30 seconds.
"I've lived all my life in Flushing and I've never seen this ... never," Ha said. "It had to be [a tornad] ... it was took quick."
The storm took its toll in tragic ways, devastating homes, properties and claiming the life of a woman in Queens, who died when a tree fell on her car as she sat parked waiting for the storm to pass. Driver Aline Levakis, 30, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., was pronounced dead at the scene and a 60-year-old passenger suffered minor injuries, police said. Numerous minor injuries were reported elsewhere.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called it "tragic'' and "scary'' and said a lot of other people had near-misses with falling trees.
"Our parks suffered yesterday. A number of the parks lost lots of trees,'' he said Friday on WOR Radio.
Parks in Brooklyn suffered severe damage, particularly Mount Prospect Park, which is the smaller park near Prospect Park. At least eight trees were down. Jen Kagan, who lives in Prospect Heights and often uses the park called the scene "shocking."
"It's like Godzilla walkied through there," Kagan said.
Police had to shut down some nearby streets at the bigger park, and in nearby Park Slope, Department of Sanitation crews had their hands full. Despite the significant damage in some areas, others -- even properties across the street -- saw no damage.
"I've got a roof ... wicker furniture over there. It didn't evne more," said Mike Devonshire of Park Slope.
Leonard Sussman, who also lives in the area, said that his yard was debris free, "but my neighbor's yard looks like a jungle out there. His whole yard is full of trees."
Getting around parts of the city Thursday night was difficult for even the mayor.
"Every street we turned, there were trees down, power lines down,'' he said.
Residents were awed by the power of the swift storm.
"A huge tree limb, like 25 feet long, flew right up the street, up the hill and stopped in the middle of the air 50 feet up in this intersection and started spinning," said Steve Carlisle, 54. "It was like a poltergeist."
"Then all the garbage cans went up in the air and this spinning tree hits one of them like it was a bat on a ball. The can was launched way, way over there," he said, pointing at a building about 120 feet away where a metal garbage can lay flattened.
Fire officials were inspecting 10 buildings in Brooklyn whose roofs were peeled off or tattered by the wind.
"The wind was holding my ceiling up in the air. It was like a wave, it went up and fell back down," said Ruby Ellis, 58, who was doing dishes in her top-floor kitchen when the storm hit. "After the roof went up, then all the rain came down and I had a flood."
A neighbor in an adjacent building, Julian Amy, said he was sitting in his first-floor apartment when the storm barreled down his street. "I just heard a loud boom," said the 33-year-old. "I thought it was a truck accident."
Residents of the top floors of the buildings were evacuated. A structural engineer was called in to assess the damage.
Investigators planned to spend several hours Friday looking over the area and mapping out the width and intensity of the storm to determine if a tornado touched down, said Kyle Struckmann, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Classes at St. Mel's Roman Catholic school were delayed until 10 a.m. to give students more time to navigate the obstacle course on the streets. One student said it was hard to get around, and Julie Mansour, technology coordinator at St. Mel's, said, "It's been crazy."
"The neighborhood is in bad shape," she added, "It's very scary."
Crews have been working all morning to help clean up, but residents aren't sure when they'll get the power back.
Eight twisters have hit New York City since 1950, he said. The last was in July, when a small one hit the Bronx during a thunderstorm that left thousands without power. In 2007, a tornado with winds up to 135 mph touched down in Staten Island and in Brooklyn, where it damaged homes and ripped the roof off a car dealership.
On Thursday, a grateful Townsend Davis stood outside his Brooklyn home, where a 40-foot tree that was uprooted from the sidewalk and crushed two cars still had a sign in the soil around its roots that read "Respect the trees."
"Someone up there wasn't listening," said Davis, 47. "I'm just glad it fell that way, as bad as I feel for the owners of that car, because if it fell this way, my house wouldn't be here."
Davis' children and wife were in the home when the storm hit.
"All of a sudden, we saw this dark cloud, and it was moving. I said 'Let's go in!'" said Stephen Wylie, who was working in a backyard in Brooklyn.
Within seconds, the front door started lashing back and forth. Trees branches were falling and trees came flying from other yards, Wylie said.
"They smashed the whole backyard, a gazebo there. Then half the roof was torn off — eight layers of it" — leaving only a layer of wood, he said.
In Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood, witnesses say the sky went pitch black at about 5:30 p.m. Trees started waving around like blades of grass. Large branches snapped and hit cars, smashing windshields.
Tashunna Williams, 19, was one of thousands of commuters stranded at Pennsylvania Station, waiting for word on when they might be able to get a train back home.
"It's horrible," said the Uniondale teenager. "I'm ready to go home."