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New York City storm rips rooftops, floods subways

August 09, 2007|Karla Schuster | Newsday

NEW YORK — Torrential rain and a tornado packing 135-mph wind tore through the city Wednesday morning, ripping apart homes, crippling the subway system and forcing stranded commuters to walk for hours in stifling heat.

As the morning rush began, the storm dumped 3.5 inches of rain in barely two hours, whipped up a twister in Brooklyn and set off flash floods that led to the death of a Staten Island woman whose car got stuck on a submerged highway and was hit by another vehicle.

More than 70 buildings were damaged, 20 of them so badly they were deemed uninhabitable.

Roofs were pulled off brick row houses in Brooklyn's Sunset Park and a car dealership in Bay Ridge. Towering 100-year-old trees snapped at their roots.

At least 30 families sought shelter at a Red Cross center set up at an elementary school in Bay Ridge. Water in some subway stations reached as high as the platforms.

A 15-by-20-foot stained-glass window in a Bay Ridge church was reduced to a pile of colorful shards on the sidewalk.

"Never would I imagine there would be a tornado," said the Rev. David Aja-Sigmon, pastor of Fourth Avenue Presbyterian Church, as he swept up the remnants of the window. "I thought I left that back in the Midwest."

By rush hour Wednesday, most subway service had been restored, with delays, except in Queens.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said the agency expected normal subway service for today's morning rush.

The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado had moved through the area during the storm. Tornadoes have hit New York City before, but not often. The weather service had records of five, plus sketchy details on the last reported tornado sighting in Brooklyn, in 1889.

Marie Mastellone, 44, described an early-morning dash from her home as ceilings collapsed behind her.

"They were going one at a time," she said. "I was in the back of my house and I started going forward . . . and everything started to fall. When I stepped out, I had no roof."

The city set up a mobile command center in Sunset Park, where Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg called New Yorkers "resilient" but noted that the timing and ferocity of the storm proved an especially destructive combination.

"I don't know that God had rush hour in mind when this storm hit," Bloomberg said.

Hours after the storm cleared, the MTA continued to struggle with the barrage of water and criticism from commuters and city officials that it was increasingly unable to handle inclement weather without shutting down wide swaths of the system.

"I think it's pretty scary that the city can't function when it rains," said Nancy Silberger, a 48-year-old legal secretary from Long Island, whose regular Long Island Rail Road train home Wednesday night was canceled.

Three times in the last seven months, including as recently as July 18, heavy rain has caused significant subway delays and disruptions.

MTA Chairman Elliot "Lee" Sander said that the subway system's pumps could handle up to 1.5 inches of rain in an hour, but that Wednesday's storm came too fast and with little warning.

"We were faced with an unusual and intense confluence of events," Sander said at a news conference Wednesday with Gov. Eliot Spitzer. "The storm took us by surprise because it was not predicted by the National Weather Service."

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