Hurricane Sandy, dubbed the “Frankenstorm”, roared in off the Atlantic on Monday flooding cities along the eastern U.S. coast and pushing storm-force winds, torrential rain and heavy snow deep inland, AFP reported.
One U.S. sailor on board a replica of the HMS Bounty was recovered from the sea in an "unresponsive" condition and the captain was feared dead after the tall ship went down off the Carolinas. Fourteen crew members were rescued.
The storm had already killed at least 67 people in the Caribbean as it came north, and American rescue services were braced for more casualties, as flood waters swamped parts of New York and cities further south.
Authorities warned the threat to life and property was "unprecedented" and ordered hundreds of thousands of residents from New England to North Carolina to evacuate their homes and seek shelter.
The National Hurricane Center said wind speeds inside Sandy dropped as the storm became a post-tropical cyclone, but remained hurricane-force at 80 miles per hour as it made landfall near Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Falling trees dragged down power cables, plunging millions of homes into darkness as night fell, while storm warnings cut rail links and marooned tens of thousands of travelers at airports across the region.
In New York, bystanders were awestruck as a massive tower crane snapped and dangled precariously from a skyscraper above a Manhattan street. Battery Park and Wall Street were among the areas evacuated, while Times Square was deserted at the hours it is normally lit up and jammed with people.
The hurricane technically became a post-tropical cyclone shortly before landfall as it collided with a wintry cold front descending from Canada.
"Hurricane-force winds are expected to gradually spread across southern New England and mid-Atlantic states from Connecticut southwards to New Jersey and Delaware," the National Hurricane Center warned.
"The combination of an extremely dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters."
In Queens, shortly after 7:00 p.m. Eastern time, a tree fell on a house, killing a 30-year-old man, the police said, according to The New York Times.
Another person died in Mansfield, Connecticut, after being hit by a falling tree.
Four other people were reported killed in New York and one more was killed in Maryland.
Disaster estimating firm Eqecat forecast that Sandy would affect more than 60 million Americans, a fifth of the population, and cause up to $20 billion in damage.
Refineries closed and major arteries such New York's Holland Tunnel were shut to traffic. The operator of two major New Jersey nuclear plants said they might have to be closed, threatening half the state's power supply.
The New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and the futures markets in Chicago were closed for Monday and Tuesday, along with federal government offices and the entire Amtrak rail network on the eastern seaboard.
New York, Boston and Washington DC were effectively shut for business and -- with just eight days to go until polling day -- the U.S. presidential election campaign was severely disrupted as candidates cancelled appearances.
Streets leading up to Atlantic City's famed ocean-front boardwalk were flooded, and mostly deserted as the city braced for high tide. In nearby Ocean City, a section of promenade was smashed and fell into the storm surge.