Hurricane Sandy causes travel chaos in the United States - and globally

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 7:55am

Hurricane Sandy grounded thousands of flights in the US northeast yesterday and upended travel plans across the globe, stranding passengers from Hong Kong to Europe.

The huge storm, which forecasters said could be the largest to hit the US mainland in American history, threatens to bring a near halt to air travel for at least two days in a key region for domestic and international flights.

Nine US states declared a state of emergency. With the US election eight days away, President Barack Obama cancelled a campaign event in Florida yesterday in order to return to Washington and monitor the US government's response to the storm.

"Everybody is aware that this is going to be a big and powerful storm," Obama said, adding "it could potentially have fatal consequences".

Delays rippled across the US, affecting travellers in cities such as San Francisco to Chicago, and disruptions spread to Asia and Europe, where airlines cancelled or delayed flights to New York and Washington from big travel hubs, including Hong Kong, Tokyo, London and Paris.

Cathay Pacific cancelled its two daily flights to New York for yesterday and today, leaving travellers such as businessman Alan Shrem, who was trying to return home to Florida after attending trade fairs in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, facing long waits for a new flight.

Shrem was exasperated after learning his Cathay flight to JFK International Airport yesterday morning was cancelled.

He learned he could be stuck in Hong Kong for nearly a week because the next available seat is on Sunday. Cathay ticketing staff at the airport put him on a waiting list for seats that could become available earlier, but he didn't hold out much hope.

"I don't know what number I am, I could be 300. They just say, 'Yeah, it's a pretty big waiting list'," said Shrem.

Cathay urged people whose flights were cancelled not to come to the airport. In the meantime, Shrem will have to fork out about HK$3,000 a night to continue staying at a nearby hotel. The airline won't pay for accommodation for stranded passengers if delays are weather-related. "It's insane. It's crazy. It's going to wind up costing me thousands and thousands of dollars by being stranded here because of the weather," he said.

Major carriers such as American Airlines, JetBlue and Delta planned to cancel all flights into and out of three area airports in New York.

According to the flight-tracking service FlightAware, nearly 10,000 flights were cancelled on Sunday and yesterday. Both Philadelphia International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport each had more than 1,200 cancellations.

Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 150 km/h, was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it churned up the east coast.

Forecasters said the centre of the storm was expected to be near the mid-Atlantic coast last night, colliding with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.

Experts say the resulting rare hybrid storm would cause havoc over nearly 1,300 kilometres from the east coast to the Great Lakes.

All US stock markets were closed yesterday and may close today, the operator of the New York Stock Exchange said.

New York and other cities closed their public transport systems and ordered mass evacuations from low-lying areas ahead of a storm surge that could reach as high as 3.4 metres. Authorities moved to close the Holland Tunnel, which links New York and New Jersey, and a tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of more than 370,000 people in low-lying communities from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Battery Park City in Manhattan.

Additional reporting by Reuters