NEW YORK (AP) - High wind, torrential rain and a tornado at the dawn of a stiflingly humid Wednesday caused widespread chaos for morning commuters, delayed flights at the region's three major airports and were blamed for at least one death.
The National Weather Service confirmed late Tuesday afternoon that the wild weather had included a tornado that touched down several times in Brooklyn.
The cyclone ripped off roofs as it dipped into the borough's Bay Ridge and Sunset Park neighborhoods at around 6:30 a.m. Meteorologists classified it as an EF-2 Tornado, with estimated wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph.
The rain flooded streets throughout the city, causing more havoc.The wind ripped off roofs while the rain flooded streets and subways.
Confused commuters, turned away from train stations by police, jostled to get onto buses or hail taxis. Crews worked feverishly to pump out the subways with an eye toward the evening rush-hour. But transit officials predicted more delays, especially for Queens and Brooklyn residents.
The airports had delays of up to an hour. And thousands of people lost electricity throughout the region for part of the day. By afternoon, the weather had delivered a double-whammy: temperatures in the 90s, with humidity pushing the predicted heat index over 100.
A woman on Staten Island died when "a car got stuck in an underpass and another car came long and hit hers," Mayor Bloomberg said.
In severe weather elsewhere, North Carolina's largest electric utilities approached record demand as triple-digit temperatures across the Southeast strained electricity grids. In northern Illinois, more rain was headed for Rockford, a day after the governor declared a disaster area.
The utilities that power most of Alabama's home and office cooling systems set records as a heat wave bore down on that state. On Tuesday, Montgomery hit 101.
In Nebraska, 4 inches of rain fell in an hour. Authorities in Surprise reported the Big Blue River had overflowed and fish were swimming on state Highway 12.
In New York, howling wind and thunder competed with wailing security alarms from cars hit by trees. Street signs were wrapped around posts. Lanie Mastellone awoke as her roof was coming off. Before escaping, she ran to get her late husband's wedding ring.
"It happened so quick. Maybe he was watching over me," said Mastellone, who lives in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighborhood. The tearful woman got a kiss on the cheek from the mayor, who told her, "You're very lucky."
"I'm sure it was tornado," said Daniel Chang, standing next to his Honda Accord, which was wrecked by a piece of his neighbor's roof. Eight houses on his street in Brooklyn's Sunset Park were severely damaged.
Everywhere, bedlam resulted from too much rain, too fast. Some suburban commuters spent a half-day just getting to work.
"I don't know that God had rush hour in mind when the storms hit," Bloomberg said in Bay Ridge, where an industrial air conditioning unit the size of three refrigerators was overturned.
In Manhattan, Times Square was one huge mess, packed with thousands of people waiting hours for any means of transportation, jostling each other to get on the few buses that arrived.
"The subway system was chaotic this morning," police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said, adding that police used crowd control tactics to keep order, directing the crush of people where to go.
By early afternoon, the rain was long past, but the air still felt damp and sticky. Mike Dizon, walking briskly past Madison Square Garden to a business meeting, called the glaring sun and humidity "unbearable."
The commuter disaster started before dawn, when tornado warnings were issued for Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and Nassau County.
The weather service said a tropical air mass dumped an extraordinary amount of rain in a short period of time. The worst was recorded between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., with 2.5 inches falling on Central Park and almost 3.5 on Kennedy International Airport.
The suburbs were soaked as well. On Long Island, 90 beaches were closed as a precaution against storm water runoff. City beaches were also being checked.
People in Westchester encountered flooding at home and throughout their commutes.
"My friend told me to expect delays because of the weather," said Marciano Zwebe, a visitor from Amsterdam who left Katonah, in Westchester County, at about 6 a.m.
Mr. Zwebe was on a Metro-North train that stopped in the Bronx due to track flooding. Hundreds of people in business attire - with briefcases, cell phones and BlackBerries in hand - trudged through drenched streets toward the subway. But it, too, was flooded. The hordes then made a beeline for buses they'd spotted up the street.
Mr. Zwebe finally made it to his Manhattan destination, Penn Station, more than 4Ĺ hours later. From there, he planned to take the also-delayed Long Island Rail Road; its station in Bayside, Queens, looked more like a small river, with the tracks submerged.
"I'm easygoing; I don't complain," said Mr. Zwebe, noting the futility of "yelling at people who can do nothing."
Maybe he was taking a cue from the locals.
Tim Shaw was one of hundreds of people descending into the steamy Chambers Street subway station in lower Manhattan, only to re-emerge after being told the trains weren't running.
The advertising agency employee went home and got his bicycle, after summing up the quagmire like a real New Yorker: "It rained hard. It happens."
Associated Press writers Kiley Armstrong, Samantha Gross, Sara Kugler, Colleen Long, Karen Matthews and Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.