NEW YORK (AP) -- High wind, torrential rain and a tornado at the dawn of a stiflingly humid Wednesday caused widespread chaos for morning commuters, delayed flights at the region's three major airports and were blamed for at least one death.
1010 WINS Storm Damage Photos
The National Weather Service confirmed late Wednesday afternoon that the wild weather had included a tornado that touched down several times in Staten Island and Brooklyn.
The cyclone ripped off roofs and damaged dozens of buildings as it hop-scotched through Brooklyn's Bay Ridge and Sunset Park neighborhoods at around 6:30 a.m. Meteorologists classified it as an EF-2 Tornado, with estimated wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph.
NOAA National Weather Service: The EF Scale
Rain flooded streets and subway tunnels throughout the city, causing more havoc.
Confused commuters, turned away from train stations by police, jostled to get onto buses or hail taxis. Crews worked feverishly to pump out the subways, but it took until the evening rush hour to get most of the system back on line.
The airports had delays of up to an hour. And thousands of people lost electricity throughout the region for part of the day. By afternoon, the weather had delivered a double-whammy: temperatures in the 90s, with humidity pushing the predicted heat index over 100.
A woman on Staten Island died when "a car got stuck in an underpass and another car came along and hit hers,'' Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
In Brooklyn, howling wind and thunder competed with wailing security alarms from cars hit by trees. Street signs were wrapped around posts. A Nissan car dealership lost its roof. Big trees toppled in Flatbush.
Lanie Mastellone awoke as her roof was coming off. Before escaping, she ran to get her late husband's wedding ring.
"It happened so quick. Maybe he was watching over me,'' said Mastellone, who lives in Bay Ridge.
The tearful woman got a kiss on the cheek from the mayor, who told her, "You're very lucky.''
"I'm sure it was a tornado,'' said Daniel Chang, standing next to his car, which was wrecked by a piece of his neighbor's roof.
Eight houses on his street in Sunset Park were severely damaged.
There have been tornadoes before in New York City, but not many. The National Weather Service had records of at least five, plus sketchy detail on the last reported tornado sighting in Brooklyn, in 1889. None was as strong as Wednesday's twister.
"It's a once in a lifetime event,'' said Jeffrey Tongue, a Weather Service meteorologist.
Everywhere, bedlam resulted from too much rain, too fast. Some suburban commuters spent a half-day just getting to work.
"I don't know that God had rush hour in mind when the storms hit,'' Bloomberg said in Bay Ridge, where an industrial air conditioning unit the size of three refrigerators was overturned.
In Manhattan, Times Square was one huge mess, packed with thousands of people waiting hours for any means of transportation, jostling each other to get on the few buses that arrived.
With many subway lines suspended or delayed, the Taxi & Limousine Commission revived a program that had been put in place during a transit workers' strike in 2005. Taxi drivers were being permitted to stop en route to pick up extra passengers, and riders were being asked to pay $5 per person and split the metered fare.
By early afternoon, the rain was long past, but the air still felt damp and sticky. Mike Dizon, walking briskly past Madison Square Garden to a business meeting, called the glaring sun and humidity "unbearable.''
The weather service said a tropical air mass dumped an extraordinary amount of rain in a short time. The worst was recorded between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m., with 2.5 inches falling on Central Park and almost 3.5 on John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The suburbs were soaked as well. On Long Island, 90 beaches were closed as a precaution against storm water runoff. City beaches were also being checked.
People in Westchester County encountered flooding at home and throughout their commutes.
"My friend told me to expect delays because of the weather,'' said Marciano Zwebe, a visitor from Amsterdam who left Katonah at about 6 a.m.
Zwebe was on a Metro-North Railroad train that stopped in the Bronx due to track flooding. Hundreds of people in business attire -- with briefcases, cell phones and BlackBerrys in hand -- trudged through drenched streets toward the subway. But it, too, was flooded. The hordes then made a beeline for buses they'd spotted up the street.
Zwebe finally made it to his Manhattan destination, Pennsylvania Station, more than 4 1/2 hours later. From there, he planned to take the also-delayed Long Island Rail Road; its station in Bayside, Queens, looked more like a small river, with the tracks submerged.
"I'm easygoing; I don't complain,'' said Zwebe, noting the futility of "yelling at people who can do nothing.''
Maybe he was taking a cue from the locals.
Tim Shaw was one of hundreds of people descending into the steamy Chambers Street subway station in lower Manhattan, only to re-emerge after being told the trains weren't running.
The advertising agency employee went home and got his bicycle, after summing up the quagmire like a real New Yorker: "It rained hard. It happens.''
Top photo: Damaged homes on 58th Street in Sunset Park by Mona Rivera