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Update 2: New York battered and flooded by Sandy

Huge swathes of New York were deserted and dark today as America's largest city reeled under the full force of Superstorm Sandy.

As the storm moved slowly inland, millions along the US East Coast awoke without power or transport.

New York's financial heart in Lower Manhattan remained closed for a second day and seawater cascaded into the still-gaping construction pit at the World Trade Centre.

The storm killed at least 16 people in seven states, cut power to more than six million homes and businesses from the Carolinas to Ohio, caused scares at two nuclear power plants, and put the presidential campaign on hold a week before Election Day.

The massive storm reached well into the Midwest: Chicago officials warned residents to stay away from the Lake Michigan shore as the city prepared for winds of up to 60 mph and waves exceeding 24 feet well into Wednesday.

An unprecedented 13-foot urge of seawater - 3 feet above the previous record - gushed into lower Manhattan, inundating tunnels, subway stations and the electrical system that powers Wall Street, and sent hospital patients and tourists rushing for safety. Skyscrapers swayed and creaked in winds that partially toppled a crane 74 stories up.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in New York and Long Island, making federal funding available to residents of the area.

Remnants of the former Category 1 hurricane were forecast to head across Pennsylvania before taking another sharp turn into western New York state.

Although weakening, the massive storm - which caused wind warnings from Florida to Canada - will continue to bring heavy rain and local flooding.

As Hurricane Sandy closed in on the Northeast, it converged with a cold-weather system that turned it into a monstrous hybrid of rain and high wind - and even snow in West Virginia and other mountainous areas inland.

Just before it made landfall at 8pm local time near Atlantic City, New Jersey, forecasters stripped Sandy of hurricane status - but the distinction was purely technical, based on its shape and internal temperature. It still packed hurricane-force wind, and forecasters were careful to say it was still dangerous to the tens of millions in its path.

While the hurricane's 90 mph winds registered as only a Category 1 on a scale of five, it packed "astoundingly low" barometric pressure, giving it terrific energy to push water inland, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology.

Officials blamed at least 16 deaths in the US on the converging storms - five in New York, three each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, two in Connecticut, and one each in Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia. Three of the victims were children, one just eight. At least one death was blamed on the storm in Canada.

Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Atlantic Coast, began to hook left at midday Monday toward the New Jersey coast. Even before it made landfall, crashing waves had claimed an old, 50-foot piece of Atlantic City's world-famous Boardwalk.

Sitting on the dangerous north-east wall of the storm, the New York metropolitan area got the worst of it.

A huge fire destroyed at least 50 homes in a flooded neighbourhood by the Atlantic Ocean in the New York borough of Queens. Firefighters had to use a boat to make rescues. Two people suffered minor injuries.

New York University's Tisch Hospital was forced to evacuate 200 patients after its backup generator failed. Patients - including 20 babies from the neonatal intensive care unit who were on battery-powered respirators - had to be carried down stairs to dozens of ambulances waiting to take them to other hospitals.

Not only was the subway shut down, but the Holland Tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey was closed, as was a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and several other spans were closed due to high winds.

A construction crane atop a luxury high-rise in Manhattan collapsed in high winds and dangled precariously. Thousands of people were ordered to leave several nearby buildings as a precaution, including 900 guests at the ultramodern Le Parker Meridien hotel.

Airlines cancelled around 12,500 flights because of the storm, a number that was expected to grow.

President Obama scrapped his election campaign events to oversee the government's response to the storm and project presidential leadership. Mitt Romney was going ahead with a planned event in Ohio, but his campaign said its focus would be on storm relief.

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