Lives shattered by Sandy

By Michael Dickison

Falling trees, floods and electrocution from downed power lines all play part in deaths of scores of people in devastating US storm

Lives were taken in Sandy in the most random of circumstances.

Inside a house in North Salem, four children, aged 11 to 15, huddled together to wait out the vicious storm.

Then a 30m oak tree was ripped from the ground and smashed into the house.

Neighbourhood friends Jack Baumler, 11, and Michael Robson, 13, were killed. Their two siblings William Baumler, 12, and Caitlyn Robson, 15, standing next to them, suffered cuts and minor scrapes.

"It could have been anybody's kids ... It's very hard to swallow," Investigator Brian Dedusevic of New York State Police told ABC News from North Salem.

"A lot of stuff could have happened with the winds and weather we experienced. And it picked two innocent kids."

Devastated family asked for prayers. "Our faith will comfort us," Daniel Seymour, the Baumler boys' uncle, told the Journal News.

"Heaven got two all-stars too soon."

More than 50 people were killed as Sandy wreaked havoc across the east coast of the United States, to add to the scores killed by the superstorm in the Caribbean.

Jack and Michael were not the only ones to die such random deaths.

Anthony Laino, a university student in Queens, was killed on his couch, smashed by a ripped-up tree. An older brother found his body.

Heather Valente, the mother of Laino's fiancee, told the New York Daily News she didn't know how to deal with the sudden turn of fate.

"How do you explain something this horrible?" she asked.

"You can't."

Other victims were found in flooded basements, rammed into glass store-fronts, washed up on beaches and buried under fallen debris.

The damage was scattered across states, Sandy's huge sweep dwarfing the human structures of suburbs and cities as it tossed up trees, drowned neighbourhoods and ignited electrical fires.

Jessie Streich-Kest, 24, had one last call with her parents.

"Her mom had said, 'Don't go out'," family friend Susannah Laskaris told the Daily News.

"She was actually a very cautious person. All I can think is the winds seemed like they were dying down."

Her body and that of flatmate Jacob Vogelman, 23, were found under a tree in the morning, alongside their battered dog Max. They had been taking Max, rescued from a shelter a year ago, for a walk along Ditmas Ave, a tree-lined residential street of large maples and oaks.

Residents did not realise there had been bodies out there.

"We had no idea," Pat Atia told the New York Times. "I was outside taking pictures of my house for the insurance when a cop said 'back up, back up' and I saw a young man dead under the tree."

Beauty student Lauren Abraham, 23, was remembered as a carefree, supportive friend. She died electrocuted by a fallen power line.

Several witnesses saw her catch fire, burning for 30 minutes before firefighters arrived.

Elpidio Nunez, a close friend for 10 years, told the Times he had a feeling that something was wrong during the night and sent text messages to her, but never heard back.

Sandy had arrived on American shores this week to brave and blase citizens, for whom the common refrain had been to call the storm warnings "hype".

The damage soon soared, as power outages and knocked-out infrastructure - particularly New York's subway train system - affected millions.

Nevertheless, for many it would be hard to imagine the personal losses, which are confined to pockets.

Scientists said such damage across the city should have been expected, and should be expected to happen again - as they had been warning officials for a decade.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo all but called similar disasters inevitable. "The construction of this city did not anticipate these kinds of situations. We are only a few feet above sea level," he said in a radio interview. "As soon as you breach the sides of Manhattan, you now have a whole infrastructure under the city that fills - the subway system, the foundations for buildings."

Ben Strauss, director of the sea level rise programme at the research group Climate Central in Princeton, New Jersey, said the damage should finally wake people up to realities.

Coastal waters in New York are expected to rise about 15cm every 10 years, according to a scientific panel appointed by the city.

It would mean flood-risk zones expanding and putting more residents at peril.

"Look, the city is extremely vulnerable to damaging storm surges just for its geography, and climate change is increasing that risk," Dr Strauss said.

But solutions, such as building huge sea gates, are estimated to cost as much as $10 billion.

Other storm deaths included an off-duty New York police officer, 29-year-old Artur Kasprzak, who was sucked into a basement after saving six adults and a 15-month-old boy from their flooded home; a 13-year-old girl found dead under a pile of debris on Staten Island.

- NZ Herald

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