Brief but severe storm barrels through NYC, killing 1, tearing off roofs, knocking down trees

By Cristian Salazar, AP
Thursday, September 16, 2010

Brief but strong storm barrels through NYC; 1 dead

NEW YORK — A fast-moving storm packing winds of up to 100 mph ripped through the city Thursday, knocking down trees and power lines, snarling traffic, tearing off roofs and leaving one person dead.

A woman was killed when a tree fell on her car as it was parked on a road in Queens. Iline Levakis, 30, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., who was sitting in the driver’s seat, was pronounced dead at the scene, while a 60-year-old passenger suffered minor injuries, police said.

Numerous minor injuries were reported elsewhere.

The storm created havoc with the evening commute. Amtrak trains were running with delays. The Long Island Rail Road said service was temporarily suspended between Penn Station in Manhattan and Jamaica, Queens, because of fallen trees. However, limited service was restored with residual delays. Service east of Jamaica was running on a normal schedule. New Jersey Transit reported delays of 20 to 30 minutes during rush hour, but normal service was restored around 7:45 p.m.

At least 30,000 customers were without power Thursday night, according to Alfonso Quiroz, a spokesman for Consolidated Edison. He said Queens was the hardest hit borough, with 27,000 outages.

The storm hit just after 5 p.m., when the National Weather Service briefly issued a tornado warning for Staten Island. Shortly afterward, warnings were issued for Brooklyn and Queens.

“The good news is that most people were safe, just annoyed — traffic being bad or a tree coming down in their yard,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said after touring storm damage in Queens.

The National Weather Service said it would assess the damage on Friday to determine whether a tornado had actually touched down.

Residents across the city were awed by the power of the 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 at 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, said a fire official. A structural engineer was called in to assess the damage. There were no injuries.

Townsend Davis, 47, stood outside of his home in Brooklyn, 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,” Davis said. “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.

Angela Bartolotta, 25, was in class at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus, when the wind began to howl and the lights flickered.

“Then the windows blew in,” Bartolotta said. “Everybody got down. We thought the tree outside was going to come in.”

Brooklyn resident Steven Harris says seven or eight rooftops blew off on his street. He says trees fell and knocked down power lines.

In the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, 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.”

It is common for New York City to get a couple of tornado warnings a year, according Matt Scalora, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

In July, a small tornado hit the Bronx during a thunderstorm that left thousands without power in the metropolitan area. Since 1950, eight confirmed tornados have hit New York City, meteorologist Kyle Struckmann said.

Associated Press Writer Charles Sheehan contributed to this report.

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