Updated: October 29, 2012 7:43PM
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Superstorm Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coastline and hurled a record-breaking 13-foot surge of seawater at New York City on Monday, roaring ashore after washing away part of the Atlantic City boardwalk and putting the presidential campaign on hold.
Just before its center reached land, the storm was stripped of hurricane status, but the distinction was purely technical, based on its shape and internal temperature. It still packed hurricane-force wind, and forecasters were careful to say it remained every bit as dangerous to the 50 million people in its path.
The National Hurricane Center announced at 8 p.m. that Sandy had come ashore near Atlantic City. The sea surged a record of nearly 13 feet at the Battery, at the foot of Manhattan.
In an attempt to lessen damage from the storm, New York City’s main utility cut power to about 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan. Authorities worried that seawater would seep into the New York subway and cripple it, along with the electrical and communications systems that are vital to the nation’s financial center.
As it closed in, Sandy knocked out electricity to more than 1.5 million people and figured to upend life for tens of millions more. It smacked the boarded-up big cities of the Northeast corridor, from Washington and Baltimore to Philadelphia, New York and Boston, with stinging rain and gusts of more than 85 mph.
As it made its way toward land, it converged with a cold-weather system that turned into a fearsome superstorm, a monstrous hybrid consisting not only of rain and high wind but of snow. Forecasters warned of 20-foot waves bashing into the Chicago lakefront and up to 3 feet of snow in West Virginia.
Airlines canceled more than 12,000 flights, disrupting the plans of travelers all over the world, and storm damage was projected at $10 billion to $20 billion, meaning it could prove to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
At least three deaths were blamed on Sandy: One person died in a storm-related traffic accident in Maryland, a Pennsylvania man fell from a tree while trimming branches in preparation for the hurricane, and one person was killed in New York when a tree fell on a house.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney canceled their campaign appearances at the very height of the race, with just over a week to go before Election Day. The president pledged the government’s help and made a direct plea from the White House to those in the storm’s path.
“When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate,” he said. “Don’t delay, don’t pause, don’t question the instructions that are being given, because this is a powerful storm.”
Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Atlantic, began to hook left at midday toward the New Jersey Coast.
The storm lost its status as hurricane because it no longer had a warm core center nor the convection — the upward air movement in the eye — that traditional hurricanes have, but it was still as dangerous as it was when it was considered a hurricane, according to National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
While the hurricane’s 90 mph winds registered as only a Category 1 on a scale of five, it packed “astoundingly low” barometric pressure, giving it terrific energy to push water inland, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at MIT.
“We are looking at the highest storm surges ever recorded” in the Northeast, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground, a private forecasting service. “The energy of the storm surge is off the charts, basically.”
In New York City, authorities worried that salt water would seep through the boarded-up street grates and through the sandbags placed at subway entrances, crippling the electrical connections needed to operate the subway.
Hours before landfall, there was graphic evidence of the storm’s power.
A construction crane atop a luxury high-rise in New York City collapsed in the wind and dangled precariously 74 floors above the street. Forecasters said the wind at the top the building may have been close to 95 mph.
Off North Carolina, a replica of the 18th-century sailing ship HMS Bounty that was built for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie “Mutiny on the Bounty” went down in the storm, and 14 crew members were rescued by helicopter from rubber lifeboats bobbing in 18-foot seas. Another crew member was found hours later but was unresponsive. The captain was missing.
At Cape May, water sloshed over the seawall, and it punched through dunes in other seaside communities. Sandy also tore away an old section of Atlantic City’s historic boardwalk.
In Maryland, at least 100 feet of a fishing pier at the beach resort of Ocean City was destroyed, and Gov. Martin O’Malley said there would be devastating flooding from the swollen Chesapeake Bay.