After Sandy, a stunned Northeast struggles to its feet

In New York and New Jersey, Sandy lived up to its advance billing as a once-in-a-lifetime megastorm, a deadly collision of tropical and arctic forces that hammered the coastline with mountainous waves and winds and swamped lower Manhattan with record flooding.

In the enormous area affected by Sandy — from the Carolinas to Maine, and inland to Ohio and West Virginia — at least 39 people died. Many were killed by falling trees and one, a teen from Wind Gap, died after crashing his all-terrain vehicle into a fallen tree. More than 7.5 million people were without power. Western areas of the storm zone were hit by heavy snow.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said the full impact on his state, where the storm made landfall Monday evening with sustained winds of 80 mph, would be hard to quickly determine. Emergency crews along the shore were engaged in a massive search and rescue operation.

An unprecedented tidal surge in northern New Jersey flooded three towns with a wall of water well over 5 feet high, forcing thousands of people from their homes. Moonachie, Little Ferry and Carlstadt were inundated after the swollen Hackensack River breached its barriers just after midnight.

Some popular resort communities, including Ocean City, were completely cut off by flooding, and the famed Atlantic City boardwalk sustained massive damage.

"There are boats in the street five blocks from the ocean," said evacuee Peter Sandomeno, one of the owners of the Broadway Court Motel in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. He called the storm the worst he'd ever seen.

Christie, calling the destruction across the state "unprecedented," took an aerial tour Tuesday afternoon and reported to President Barack Obama.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said he'd granted New Jersey's request for 35 ambulances and a "mass casualty" bus that could transport large numbers of the injured.

In addition, the state had made one of its urban search and rescue squads available for use in New Jersey, and was opening two "megashelters" — one at East Stroudsburg University, the other at West Chester University — for displaced people from New York and New Jersey.

In New York, the most destructive element of the storm wasn't water but fire, as a massive blaze destroyed as many as 100 beachfront homes in the Breezy Point section of the borough of Queens.

Firefighters told New York's WABC-TV that the water was chest high on the street, and they had to use a boat to make rescues. In one apartment home, about 25 people were trapped in an upstairs unit, and the two-story home next door was ablaze and setting fire to the apartment's roof. Firefighters climbed an awning to get to the trapped people and took them downstairs to a boat in the street.

Lower Manhattan, including Wall Street, was flooded by a surge of seawater measured at 13.4 feet at Battery Park, the island's southernmost tip. That's more than 3 feet higher than the record set in September 1960 during Hurricane Donna.

Water poured into the Queens Midtown and Brooklyn-Battery commuter tunnels. Some subway tunnels in lower Manhattan lost power after water flooded the stations and tracks.

Fearing the saltwater would damage the subway system and electrical network, New York City's main utility shut off electricity to about 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan.

More than 17,000 flights had been canceled through Tuesday. An additional 1,020 had been canceled for Wednesday. Several major airports remained closed, including John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International in New Jersey.

The New York Stock Exchange was closed for a second straight day — the first time in a century weather has forced back-to-back closures — but officials said it would reopen Wednesday. Subway service, however, could be days from full restoration.

"We knew that this was going to be a very dangerous storm, and the storm has met our expectations," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. "This is a once-in-a-long-time storm."

The National Weather Service gave a statistical glimpse at Sandy's breadth and power. West Islip, N.Y, recorded a 90 mph wind gust; 400 miles west, the town of Davis, W.Va., measured 18 inches of snow. Wildwood Crest, N.J., recorded a foot of rain.

Obama, who is expected to visit New Jersey on Wednesday to see the damage and thank first responders, issued federal emergency decrees for New York and New Jersey, declaring that "major disasters" existed in both states. One disaster-forecasting company predicted economic losses could ultimately reach $20 billion, only half insured.

Elsewhere along Sandy's path, officials spoke of dodging a bullet. Corbett used that phrase in describing the impact on Pennsylvania, which experienced near-record power outages from the storm's driving rains and howling winds, but escaped the kind of crippling damage forecasters had warned was possible as the storm gathered force on its march from the tropics.