Image: Storm damage in New York
Mark Lennihan  /  AP
Residents in the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn. N.Y., circle around a car crushed by a fallen tree, on Thursday.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/17/2010 11:05:42 AM ET 2010-09-17T15:05:42

The National Weather Service planned to spend Friday investigating whether a tornado touched down during a brief but fierce storm that barreled through New York City the night before.

Meteorologists had issued tornado warnings for Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens Thursday night. In the wake of the storm that tore up trees, stripped roofs from homes and disrupted train service, New Yorkers worked to clean up debris.

Officials at the 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 Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan and a key hub in Jamaica, Queens.

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The rail system's Port Washington line remained suspended in the eastbound direction Friday morning, but westbound service — toward Manhattan — was operating trains about once every thirty minutes for rush hour, NBC News reported.  Several stations experienced delays because of weather-related signal problems, an LIRR spokesman told NBC News.

Almost 27,000 people remained without power in Queens, a Consolidated Edison spokeswoman Elizabeth Clark told NBC News.  The number rose from earlier tallies because more residents reported outages, and because some were intentionally taken out of service so workers could repair a power line, Clark said.

An additional 1,810 were still without power in Brooklyn, 787 on Staten Island and a handful in the Bronx and Westchester, NBC News reported. A total of 44,000 customers had been affected by the storm.

Falling tree kills N.Y. visitor
The storm became deadly when a tree fell on a car parked on a road in Queens, killing the driver. Iline 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.

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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.

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.

'It was like a wave'
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 58-year-old Ruby Ellis, 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," the 33-year-old said. "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.

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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.

'We saw this dark cloud'
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.

Interactive: Birth of a tornado (on this page)

"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.

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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, 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.

NBC News, WNBC, msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Deadly wind-whipped storm sweeps NYC

  1. Closed captioning of: Deadly wind-whipped storm sweeps NYC

    >>> but first that sudden and violent storm here in new york. peter alexander is in queens with the latest.

    >> reporter: good morning to you, it's going to be up to the national weather service to officially determine if a tornado struck new york city . if you push the camera in as the bus passes by, you can see this three story apartment building . it was struck by winds late yesterday afternoon that literally peeled off the roof like the top of a sardine can, trees and branchs have been littered throughout this neighborhood, power lines knocked down as well. and in this building alone, 24 people were forced to relocate. the violent and fast-moving storms crashed through new york city with little to know warning.

    >> we had an umbrella turned inside out and we were holding on to the gate for dear life . forget it. i couldn't even catch my breath.

    >> reporter: in a matter of minutes, neighborhoods were punched by hurricane force winds, uprooting trees and snapping branches.

    >> i looked up and i saw the rain going -- you couldn't tell which way it was going, just blowing all over, and things were just flying, all the furniture in the backyard was flying.

    >> reporter: the famed new york skyline looked like gotham city .

    >> it just got real dark and the wind came down like it was a spaceship literally landing on the block and started shaking and the trees and i got scared.

    >> reporter: dramatic video caught this rare scene, an electrifying bolt of lightning striking close to the statue of liberty . while photos like these turned up on twitter. one woman was killed when a tree fell on her car. officials believe she pulled off a busy highway to try to escape the powerful winds. cars crushed and windshields shattered. the storm paralyzed traffic for hours, local reporters called it the worst congestion they have seen in decades. and with rail lines temporarily shut down, many stranded passengers were left hot, sweaty and frustrated.

    >> all these people, what are we going to do? how are we going to get home tonight ?

    >> reporter: michael bloomberg hit the streets to survey the damage firsthand.

    >> which is unof those things that while it's an act of god, doesn't make it any easier for us. people are concerned, they have a right to be concerned.

    >> reporter: concerned neighbors worked hard overnight, picking up the pieces and sorting through debris.

    >> i know it was raining very heavily, but i never imagined this. this is not what i expected to come home to.

    >> reporter: take a look at some of these photographs that give you a better understanding of the strength of these storms, the destruction that was left throughout the three borrows of new york city . brooklyn, squequeens and staten island . throughout new york city , schools will be open "today," students returning to classes. matt and meredith, there was actually a tornado that touched down just in july, just two months ago. before that it had been three years.

    >> let's hope it's another three

Interactive: Birth of a tornado

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