By Catherine E. Shoichet and Holly Yan
(CNN) — Floodwaters rushed into New York’s subway tunnels and left neighborhood streets across the Northeast looking like rivers. Homes washed off their foundations and onto a New Jersey state highway. Heavy winds sent power lines and trees crashing to the ground.
As they began surveying damage Tuesday, officials said it was impossible to measure the destruction Superstorm Sandy left behind.
“I don’t think words like ‘catastrophic’ or ‘historic’ are too strong to explain the impact,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie described the devastation as “unthinkable.”
Nearly 8 million customers shivered without power in 15 states and the District of Columbia in Sandy’s chilly wake. Thousands of people were in shelters, many wondering whether their homes had survived.
Sandy claimed at least 30 lives in the United States and one in Canada, bringing the total number of deaths to at least 98 after the storm wreaked havoc in the Caribbean. The latest fatality reported was a man crushed by a tree that fell on his car in North Carolina on Monday night, state police said.
And it isn’t over yet, President Barack Obama said Tuesday afternoon.
“It is still moving north. There are still communities that could be affected. There are still risks of flooding, still risks of downed power lines, risks of high winds,” he said, stressing the importance of heeding warnings from local officials.
Meanwhile, officials in cities and towns already hit by the superstorm scrambled to rescue stranded residents and restore services.
Hundreds of people were stranded in one New Jersey town alone. And Connecticut’s governor offered ominous advice in a Twitter post: “If u find urself surrounded by water, call 4 help if u can, then get 2 highest level of home. Hang a white sheet out a street-side window.”
Authorities scrambled in boats and National Guard trucks to rescue hundreds trapped in several towns after a berm broke in Moonachie, New Jersey. Some residents waited on rooftops for rescuers to arrive.
“Within 30 minutes, those towns were under 4 or 5 feet of water,” said Jeanne Baratta, chief of staff for the Bergen County executive.
Meanwhile, the stench of smoke blew across flooded streets as fierce winds and rising waters shorted out power lines and sparked fires in places such as Lindenhurst, New York.
At least 80 homes burned to the ground in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, fire officials said. The cause of the blaze was not immediately released. More than 200 firefighters battled the leaping flames.
Elsewhere in New York City, emergency backup power failed and 10 feet of water flooded the basement of NYU Langone Medical Center, prompting the evacuation of 260 patients. Nurses carried sick newborn babies down nine flights of stairs, manually pumping air into the lungs of those on respirators.
On Tuesday, nearly three-quarters of a million people in the city were without power, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, describing the damage Sandy caused as “enormous.”
“The path of destruction that she left in her wake is going to be felt for quite some time,” Bloomberg told reporters.
When the storm hit, water poured into the ground zero construction site at a “massive rate,” Cuomo said in a Twitter post.
Floodwaters rushed into the city’s subway tunnels. Authorities said that they didn’t know how long it would take to get the trains up and running again.
“The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night,” said Joseph Lhota, chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on our entire transportation system, in every borough and county of the region.”
The storm also left travelers stranded, and it was unclear when flights out of New York would resume. John F. Kennedy International Airport could reopen Wednesday, Cuomo told reporters. But LaGuardia International Airport was expected to remain closed because of extensive damage, he said.
Atlantic City, New Jersey, became an extension of the Atlantic Ocean. Seaweed and ocean debris swirled in the knee-deep water covering downtown streets. Floodwaters ripped up part of the city’s fabled boardwalk.
In Rutherford, New Jersey, residents braced for a long cleanup.
“The landscape had visibly changed,” Alex D’Arco, 44, told CNN’s iReport. “People were walking around in a state of shock.”
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.”
The normally loquacious New Jersey governor struggled to find the words Tuesday morning to describe the images of devastation captured by helicopters surveying the damage along the Jersey Shore.
The roller coaster and log plume from a popular amusement park were in the ocean, Christie said, and homes were in the middle of Route 35. “We’re talking months to recover from this,” he said.
A wide reach
Sandy made landfall Monday night in southern New Jersey, sending waves of water into major cities along the East Coast.
Of the 30 U.S. fatalities, 10 were in New York City. Several of the dead, including an 8-year-old boy in Pennsylvania, were killed by falling trees or tree limbs. And Canadian authorities blamed flying debris for the death of a Toronto woman.
While the Northeast corridor of the United States bore the brunt of Sandy, the storm affected a much broader area and was still churning over western Pennsylvania on Tuesday, National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb said.
“The coastal impacts are certainly less today than they were last night, but the effects are not zero,” Knabb told reporters in a conference call. “There are still some fairly strong winds out of the south.”
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.
Fierce winds blew from northern Georgia into Canada and as far west as Lake Michigan on Tuesday. Meanwhile, heavy rains soaked New England and parts of the Midwest.
And in West Virginia, a blizzard spawned by Sandy knocked out power, toppled trees and covered streets with masses of wet snow.
“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.
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 in economic loss.
One estimate Tuesday from Kinetic Analysis Corp., which conducts weather hazard assessments, said the storm’s economic impact could be up to $25 billion.
Obama, Romney respond
As the devastation spread, Obama signed major disaster declarations for New Jersey and New York on Tuesday.
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.
Obama, speaking from the Red Cross office in Washington, called on federal officials to move quickly to help storm recovery.
“My message to the federal government,” he said, “is no bureaucracy, no red tape. Get resources to where they’re needed as fast as possible.”
CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen, Halimah Abdullah, Josh Levs, David Ariosto, Joe Sterling, Mark Norman, Katy Byron, Martin Savidge, Chris Youd, Soledad O’Brien, Elizabeth Cohen, Eden Pontz, Ed Payne, Ivan Cabrera, Chandler Friedman, Amanda Watts, Ali Velshi and Henry Hanks contributed to this report.