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Hurricane Sandy derails area transit systems

Relentless wind gusts and driving rain locked down transportation systems throughout the New York City area Monday with little chance of a quick return to normal.

Superstorm Sandy closed parkways, bridges and tunnels. It flooded roads, sidelined trains and idled buses from Montauk Highway to Manhattan. Airports worked to keep stranded passengers comfortable after airlines canceled all flights.

State Police closed all parkways in Nassau and Suffolk counties at 8 p.m. Shortly before 9 p.m., the Metropolitan Transportation Authority closed all of its bridges and tunnels.

"People are isolated now," Asharoken police Officer-in-Charge Ray Mahdesian said as Asharoken Avenue, off Huntington Town's north shore, was closed because of flooding. "Right now they have to stay where they are."

By late morning, as the first bands of Sandy battered Long Island, coastal roads along the South Shore and several north-south parkways closed because of flooding. Intermittent high waters shut down portions of the FDR Drive in Manhattan.

By evening, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered several bridges, including the George Washington, Henry Hudson, Bronx-Whitestone, Verrazano-Narrows and Throgs Neck, closed. The Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River and the Holland and Hugh Carey (Brooklyn-Battery) tunnels also shut down. East River bridges -- the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and 59th Street/Queensboro -- closed to all but emergency vehicles.

The Robert F. Kennedy/Triborough Bridge was closed at 8 p.m. because of wind gusts of 100 mph. As winds and flooding increased, all other bridges and tunnels were closed, including the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.

"Please remember, public transportation is shut down," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a briefing Monday night. "It will certainly close tomorrow [Tuesday] morning and likely remain closed through the day."

The state Department of Transportation banned all nonemergency trucks and oversize vehicles from roads south of Interstate 84, he said.

Among the first roads closed on Long Island Monday were South Shore sections of the Meadowbrook, Wantagh and Loop parkways and the Robert Moses Causeway. Local roads on the North and South shores, and on the East End, closed as they were inundated.

Drivers who ventured onto the roads Monday encountered water-filled highways, wind gusts that seemed to stop cars in their tracks and lanes blocked by downed power lines or fallen trees. Winds were forecast to pick up through the night, increasing the possibility of more debris on roadways by morning.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said he encountered some of the storm damage as a tree fell in front of his vehicle on Shelter Rock Road on his way to tour Bayville.

"So you have to take it seriously, the roadways are becoming impassible," he said. "You shouldn't be on the roadways unless it's an emergency."

Normally bustling train stations, bus stops and subway platforms were empty Monday after the MTA on Sunday shut down operations. The NICE bus system in Nassau County and Suffolk County Transit also canceled service.

Still, the cancellations caught some by surprise.

Gerson Díaz stood alone in the rain and wind Monday morning, waiting for a bus on Jericho Turnpike in Huntington Station. Díaz said he was thinking of walking to the Italian restaurant where he works in Melville. "People still go out to eat on days like these, so I have to go work," he said.

Long Island Rail Road president Helena Williams said that, weather permitting, she expected to deploy crews as early as 7 a.m. Tuesday to start surveying and repairing damage along the tracks. She would not predict when service would be restored.

"It's too early. We need a sense of what's the damage," Williams said. "This is a tremendous storm. Huge force."

MTA chairman Joseph Lhota told broadcast outlets last night that his goal was to have some subway service restored Wednesday supplemented by "a robust bus system."

Although the LIRR parked its trains, stations remained vulnerable to storm damage. At the Island Park station -- which saw the worst flooding during Tropical Storm Irene last year -- tracks were submerged Monday afternoon, and the surrounding parking lots were under more than a foot of water. Transit officials said a delayed restart of the subway system could be worsened by station entrances and sidewalk vents in low-lying areas being flooded.

The MTA has pumps to remove water from the stations, but they won't work if power fails. Officials said they feared that corrosive salt water could damage track switches, some of which may need to be repaired or replaced. Just pumping out the water from subway tunnels could take as long as four days, officials said.

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