Hurricane Gloria struck no more than a glancing blow to the East Coast yesterday, tearing down power lines and crushing fishing piers but leaving far less damage than weather experts feared from a storm that started out as one of the most dangerous to move up the Atlantic in the last 50 years.
Six deaths were blamed on Gloria, whose rapid passage by the coasts of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey and across eastern Long Island and parts of southern New England forced the evacuation of more than half a million people.
"For the storm of the century, it was a washout," said Henry Stern, parks commissioner for New York City. Echoed Mayor Edward I. Koch: "We scared the hell out of the hurricane and it went elsewhere."
On the western tip of Fire Island, N.Y., last night, as police opened up roads to four-wheel-drive vehicles, state park service officer Ken Nordt said, "We don't know why we weren't devastated. But they're all saying, 'Boy, we lucked out.' "
Damage was limited, authorities said, because the hurricane's worst winds passed over the ocean and it struck the New York area coastline at low tide. Safety announcements by public officials and the drumbeat of news reports also helped ensure that the 40 million people who live along the East Coast were ready for the storm.
The precautions taken along the seaboard were among the greatest anywhere for a hurricane in this century. States of emergency had been declared by governors in eight states, and schools in 10 states were closed and turned into evacuation shelters. National Guard troops were placed on alert in four states during Gloria's passage; air and bus travel were curtailed. In New York, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo went on the radio to warn potential looters that they could expect "tough" measures if caught in homes that had been evacuated.
"The East Coast was very lucky," said Richard Anthes, a hurricane expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "Gloria's nastiest side was out at sea, the tides were low all along the East Coast as the storm moved north and when it did come ashore it did so on its weak side."
Gloria's fiercest winds were centered on the storm's eastern edge, which crossed over open ocean most of the time as it swept north from North Carolina's Outer Banks. Gloria's 40-mph speed kept it in lockstep with low tides as they changed along the coast. The storm also lost some of its strength by brushing into the coastlines of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.
"If Gloria had been a little farther to the right," Robert Sheets, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center outside Miami, said, "it would have maintained its strength when it hit Long Island."
The hurricane hit Long Island with 100 mph winds on its eastern edge and only 50 mph winds on its western rim, the part of the storm that swept over land, Sheets said.
"Think of the hurricane as a top spinning around and marching up the coast at the same time," Sheets said. "The motion of the top will be greatest on the eastern side of the top."
The hurricane struck first just north of Cape Hatteras, N.C., at Buxton, with 130 mph winds just after 1 a.m. yesterday, then hurried up the coast. By mid-afternoon, it had weakened noticeably when it ran aground in Connecticut. By the time the storm had raced up the Connecticut River into Vermont, its winds were down to 50 mph and the thick gray clouds it left behind were replaced by blue skies and sunshine from North Carolina to New York.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Gloria weakened into a tropical storm as it spread over western Maine and headed into Canada's coastal provinces.
During the day, as the storm marched north, heavy rain fell all along Gloria's path. Six inches fell in the Poconos, 4 inches in New York's Catskills and Adirondacks mountains. As much as 9 inches washed down on Carbon County in northeastern Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode said rain was so heavy there that 50 city streets were flooded and 15 had to be closed to traffic.
In Stamford, Conn., the Army Corps of Engineers raised a 35-foot steel storm barrier in the harbor for the first time to protect boats and low-lying homes. In New Bedford, Mass., the giant doors of a hurricane wall protecting the harbor were closed for the first time since the wall was built after Hurricane Donna devastated New Bedford in 1960.
In New York City, skyscrapers -- including the 110-story World Trade Center -- were closed. The New York Stock Exchange and the mercantile and commodity exchanges closed. All three New York City area airports were closed.
Atlantic City shut down its casinos for the first time in the 7 1/2 years they have been operating. Bridges and tunnels in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were sealed off to traffic.
From North Carolina to Maine, stores and businesses were boarded up or sandbagged. Police cruised beachfront neighborhoods, broadcasting by loudspeaker the latest storm warnings and advice.
Long Island Lighting Co. turned off the power to 70 percent of its customers to forestall fires from fallen power lines. Fire Island off the southern coast of Long Island was evacuated hours before the hurricane's eye passed overhead.
The Red Cross alone set up more than 60 emergency shelters along the East Coast as the storm made its way north.
The National Hurricane Center kept up a steady stream of reports to all states lying in Gloria's path, giving state emergency management teams up-to-the-minute reports on the hurricane's progress. Mostly, the forecasters at the Hurricane Center were right on the mark with their predictions, which made it much easier for the states to plan ways to deal with the storm.
"Basically, we outlined three possible scenarios," Sheets said. "One was that it would move inland. Another was that it would move out over the water a little bit more. A third was that it would hug the coast and lose a little strength, which is the course that the storm took."
Despite the warnings, there was a long trail of damage in Gloria's wake. The boardwalks in Ocean City and Atlantic City were torn to splinters in many places. At the storm's height, 15-foot waves rolled right under the Atlantic City boardwalk, sending water up through its planks like geysers, buckling the boardwalk and rocking its light poles as if they were toys.
In at least nine states, trees snapped like twigs, waves crashed over sea walls and into fishing piers and power lines fell. More than 1 million homes lost power to the storm's winds, including an estimated 500,000 in Connecticut where Gloria ended its 12-hour rampage.
A tornado spawned by Gloria damaged the town hall roof in Billerica, Mass., and the storm tore the roof from a Long Island police station.
A section of the 196-foot mast of the historic USS Constitution, known as "Old Ironsides," was snapped in Boston Harbor and a 400-foot radio transmitter in Framingham, Mass., was toppled by roaring winds.
Wind and rain triggered a gas explosion at a factory in Bohemia, N.Y., where a roof was also blown off a supermarket. The famous Apollo Theater in Harlem collapsed when winds tore at the fragile structure.
Incredibly, a tractor trailer hauling furniture was blown off the Tappen Zee Bridge north of New York City into the Hudson River and its driver and passenger survived the fall. Police said the two men received cuts and bruises.
In deaths linked to the storm, two people were killed in traffic accidents in Connecticut, and a third was killed in the state when struck by a fallen tree that was being cut apart. A man in Long Branch, N.J., was electrocuted when he tried to move downed power lines from in front of his house. A man was killed in Scituate, R.I., while removing branches from a fallen tree when another tree fell on him, and a utility worker in Ramapo, N.Y., was killed when he was hit by a falling tree as he tried to repair a ruptured gas line.