Death toll rising, millions without power, widespread damage post-Sandy

(CNN) -- Rescuers plucked stranded New Jersey residents from flooded neighborhoods, workers pumped water from swamped Manhattan tunnels and stunned homeowners dug through the wreckage of their houses Tuesday after Superstorm Sandy ripped into the Northeast.

"I've lived here for 39 years," Toms River, New Jersey, restaurateur Keith Paul told CNN. "I've been through several hurricanes, going back to Gloria. And I've never seen anything like this at all."

Officials said it was impossible to measure the destruction Sandy left behind after it struck land near Atlantic City, New Jersey, around high tide Monday night. The U.S. death toll rose to at least 33 on Tuesday night, with three more fatalities reported in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie announced.

"I never thought I'd see what I saw today," Christie told reporters after spending the day reviewing the damage to his state.

The other fatalities were in states ranging from North Carolina to Connecticut, plus one in Canada -- in addition to the 67 deaths Sandy inflicted on the Caribbean last week.

Recovery efforts were starting to take hold Tuesday night. The number of electric customers shivering without power fell to just under 6.9 million, down from nearly 8 million reported earlier in the day across 15 states and the District of Columbia.

But thousands of people waited in shelters, not knowing whether their homes had survived. Salt water streamed down the concrete canyons of lower Manhattan as utility workers pumped out the tunnels that carry people and power lines around New York.

And as if the water wasn't enough, one Queens neighborhood lost scores of homes to an inferno that erupted at the height of the storm, hindering efforts to contain it, while others within a few blocks were washed away.

"There is nothing in this one cluster of homes," Breezy Point resident T.J. Gilmartin told CNN. "And every house along the side that's still up is damaged. ... Even the sidewalk is ripped up."

Christie said about 1,000 people had been rescued Tuesday. But rescuers were being called back at nightfall in many towns because of the hazards lurking in the dark, swirling water that lingered across much of the region.

Paul told CNN's "The Situation Room" that roads in Toms River and the route to its oceanfront neighbor, Seaside Heights, were impassible.

"There's poles down, there's trees down across wires with transformers blowing up on the street," he said. "You go out and walk around, it's dangerous, because if you hit a puddle and it's got electricity -- there's really not much you can do until things get cleaned up a little bit."

At one shelter in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, residents who've lived in the area for decades were in "utter disbelief," said Kristiana Ameida, a Red Cross spokeswoman.

"Many are calling their friends and neighbors, trying to get any information they possibly can. Many of them are worrying the worst, that their homes have been destroyed or are currently sitting under water," she said. "The garage doors are missing. Stuff has floated out to sea."

Atlantic City, a resort town famed for its beaches, boardwalk and blackjack, became an extension of the ocean as seaweed and flotsam swirled in the knee-deep water covering downtown streets. But while the property damage there was "pretty extensive," Mayor Lorenzo Langford said, "I'm happy to report that the human damage, if you will, has been minimal."

One fatality had been reported in Atlantic City, Christie said Tuesday night.

Parts of the boardwalk were washed out in the storm, Langford said, but the Atlantic City Alliance, which promotes tourism there, said the damage was limited to a residential area away from the district most tourists visit.

Christie said seeing the damage left behind to the state's treasured beaches was "overwhelming" to him "as a kid born and raised in this state and who spent time over my life, both my childhood and adult life, at the Jersey Shore."

"We will rebuild it. No question in my mind, we'll rebuild it," he said. "But for those of us who are my age, it won't be the same. It will be different because many of the iconic things that made it what it was are now gone and washed in to the ocean."

Across the Hudson River in New York, parts of the city could be without electric service for four days, Consolidated Edison President Kevin Burke told reporters. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said restoring power and mass transit were the biggest challenges facing officials in the days ahead.

"I'm happy to say it's the beginning of a process that we all know will take a while," Bloomberg said. "But this is the end of the downside, and hopefully from here is going up."

Bloomberg said free, albeit limited, bus service was slated to resume Tuesday evening to take up some of the slack left behind by the crippled subway system, and the New York Stock Exchange was scheduled to resume trading Wednesday morning.

The storm closed all three of metropolitan New York's major airports. Two of them, John F. Kennedy International and Newark Liberty, were scheduled to reopen Wednesday with limited service from carriers, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced late Tuesday. But LaGuardia International Airport was expected to remain closed because of extensive damage, Cuomo said.

While the East Coast was still grappling with the scope of the disaster, federal officials warned that Sandy was an ongoing concern with the potential to inflict more pain on inland states.

"The coastal impacts are certainly less today than they were last night, but the effects are not zero," National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb told reporters in a conference call. "There are still some fairly strong winds out of the south."

The storm was centered about 50 miles east of Pittsburgh and packing 45-mph winds Tuesday evening, bringing flood warnings to Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania and blizzard warnings to high elevations in the Appalachian Mountains.

"It's 3 feet of heavy snow. It's like concrete," said meteorologist Reed Timmer, who was riding out the storm in Elkins, West Virginia.

Forecasters predict the storm's center of circulation will be north of the Great Lakes by Wednesday. But coastal flooding in the 2- to 4-foot range could still occur "in spots," while the potential for other floods stretched as far west as Lake Michigan, Knabb said. Winds remain "fairly breezy" as far north as coastal Maine, which could see new power disruptions, he said.

"I don't want anyone to think that the event is over," Knabb said.

The full scale of Sandy's wrath has yet to be determined. But according to a government prediction, the storm's wind damage alone could result in more than $7 billion.

One estimate Tuesday from Kinetic Analysis Corp., which conducts weather hazard assessments, said the storm's economic impact could be up to $25 billion.

The dead included at least 10 in New York City, including a 28-year-old off-duty police officer who died in his home of Staten Island, the New York Police Department said. One of the two dead in Connecticut was a firefighter, Gov. Dannel Malloy said.

Falling trees or limbs killed motorists in North Carolina and New Jersey, as well as an 8-year-old boy in Pennsylvania. Canadian authorities blamed flying debris for the death of a Toronto woman.

And before hitting shore, Sandy's high waves swamped the tall ship HMS Bounty, a replica of the historic British sailing vessel. One of the ship's deckhands was killed and her captain was still missing Tuesday, but the remaining 14 people aboard were rescued.

In Washington, President Barack Obama pledged the full support of the federal government for recovery efforts. He signed major disaster declarations for New Jersey and New York on Tuesday, clearing the way for federal aid to residents and to state and local authorities.

"My instructions to the federal agency has been, 'Do not figure out why we can't do something. I want you to figure out how we do something. I want you to cut through red tape. I want you to cut through bureaucracy.' There's no excuse for inaction at this point," Obama said during a visit to the headquarters of the American Red Cross. "I want every agency to lean forward and to make sure that we are getting the resources where they need -- where they're needed as quickly as possible."

The storm's timing a week before the presidential election is tricky for Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Both candidates sought to balance the real threat of a killer storm against the need to squeeze out any last-minute advantages in battleground states ahead of next Tuesday's vote.

Obama discarded campaign events in Florida and Virginia to return to Washington and address the storm from the White House. He was scheduled to travel to New Jersey on Wednesday and survey storm damage, the White House said.

On Tuesday, Romney swapped campaign rallies for a relief event in Ohio.

"We have heavy hearts as you know with all the suffering going on in a major part of our country. A lot of people are hurting this morning," said Romney, adding that he had the chance to speak with some of the governors from the affected areas.

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