CLEVELAND — High winds spinning off the edge of superstorm Sandy took a vicious swipe at Northeast Ohio early today, uprooting trees, cutting power to hundreds of thousands, closing schools and flooding parts of major commuter arteries that run along Lake Erie.
At least 250,000 homes and businesses in Ohio — the majority in the Cleveland area — were still without power by early afternoon. Scattered outages reached down into central and eastern Ohio, with some in the southern part of the state. Utilities said it could be days before it’s fully restored.
Authorities were warning residents of the Cleveland area to stay home if possible because of the danger of downed trees and power lines from the early morning high winds, as well as debris in the road and flooded streets. A low-lying section of Interstate 90 east of downtown was shut down because waves from Lake Erie were washing over it. Howling winds along the lake peeled off part of the siding at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Hundreds of schools were closed throughout northeast Ohio and the nasty conditions — including the season’s first snowfall in some parts of the state — led to late starts at schools in central and eastern Ohio. As in much of the storm-affected areas of the East, thousands of flights were canceled at Ohio airports.
The storm that made landfall in New Jersey on Monday evening with 80 mph sustained winds killed at least 34 in the U.S., cut power to at least 8.2 million homes and businesses from the Carolinas to Ohio, caused scares at two nuclear power plants and stopped the presidential campaign cold.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney planned to go ahead with a scheduled appearance in the Dayton area Tuesday, but his campaign said it would focus on storm relief.
High wind warnings, with gusts of 55-60 mph, were in effect in many areas of Ohio into the afternoon, and a lakeshore flood warning was in effect for Lake Erie until 8 p.m.
In Cleveland, the 10-minute commute for 61-year-old Richard Ferling to his job at a transmission shop took 30 minutes. He got turned around three times by flooded roads blocked with barricades and many traffic signals out.
“I tell you what — it’s scary,” said Ferling, who arrived at work surprised to find the electricity still on but the red awning across the front of the building ripped to shreds. Around the corner, houses were blacked out by outages and numerous trees were down.
Ed Paradise lost power in his floral shop in Parma, a Cleveland suburb, and was working with a flashlight and candles Tuesday morning. His phone also was out, which he expected would cut into the day’s business.
Paradise, who lives south of Canton, said his pre-dawn drive to work on Interstate 77 wasn’t bad until he hit the Cleveland area.
“That’s the when the car started moving a little bit,” he said. “You could feel the wind.”
DeWayne Anders, 29, surveying the messy backyard scene after a night of heavy rain and strong winds, said he was grateful Ohio apparently was getting only a glancing blow from the powerful storm.
“I feel bad for the people more East. We’re getting the light part of it,” Anders said.
Neighborhoods along the Cleveland-Parma corridor of neat bungalows were littered with toppled branches and trees. Firefighters came out to remove a dangling phone line from Anders’ backyard, and he came to the rescue of an elderly neighbor whose electric garage door opener lacked power.
Some of the most concentrated storm damage appeared to be in neighborhoods closest to Lake Erie.
Glen Griffin, 39, moving renovation supplies into his newly purchased 100-year-old home on the first residential street from the lake, said the aging roof was damaged beyond repair.
“It’s an old house with an old roof, and it’s just tearing it apart,” Griffin said as a neighbor picked up roof shingles off the street.
Ohio Emergency Management spokeswoman Tamara McBride said state officials were getting in touch with their counterparts in northeast Ohio to see where efforts are needed most. She said 30 Ohio Department of Transportation trucks had been dispatched in central Ohio to clear roads of debris.
FirstEnergy reported more than 169,000 customers without power Tuesday afternoon in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. Other outages were spread across the lakefront on both sides of the city. American Electric Power-Ohio was reporting scattered outages in the Canton and Columbus areas, as well as in Lawrence County in far southern Ohio.
Sandy lost its hurricane status on Monday and is now considered an extratropical cyclone. It was centered west of Philadelphia Tuesday morning and was expected to move into western New York on Tuesday night.