For New York City at least, Sandy was not the dayslong onslaught many had feared, and the wind and rain that sent water sloshing into Manhattan from three sides began dying down within hours.
Still, the power was out for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and an estimated 5.7 million people altogether across the East. And the full extent of the storm's damage across the region was unclear, and unlikely to be known until daybreak.
In addition, heavy rain and further flooding remain major threats over the next couple of days as the storm makes its way into Pennsylvania and up into New York State. Near midnight, the center of the storm was just outside Philadelphia, and its winds were down to 75 mph, just barely hurricane strength.
"It was nerve-racking for a while, before the storm hit. Everything was rattling," said Don Schweikert, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in Cape May, N.J., near where Sandy roared ashore. "I don't see anything wrong, but I won't see everything until morning."
As the storm closed in, it converged with a cold-weather system that turned it into a superstorm, a monstrous hybrid consisting not only of rain and high wind but snow in West Virginia and other mountainous areas inland.
It smacked the boarded-up big cities of the Northeast corridor — Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston — with stinging rain and gusts of more than 85 mph.
Just before Sandy reached land, forecasters stripped it of hurricane status, but the distinction was purely technical, based on its shape and internal temperature. It still packed hurricane-force wind, and forecasters were careful to say it was still dangerous to the tens of millions in its path.
Sandy made landfall at 8 p.m. near Atlantic City, which was already mostly under water and saw an old, 50-foot piece of its world-famous Boardwalk washed away earlier in the day.
Authorities reported a record surge 13 feet high at the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan, from the storm and high tide combined.
In an attempt to lessen damage from saltwater to the subway system and the electrical network beneath the city's financial district, New York City's main utility cut power to about 6,500 customers in lower Manhattan. But a far wider swath of the city was hit with blackouts caused by flooding and transformer explosions.
The city's transit agency said water surged into two major commuter tunnels, the Queens Midtown and the Brooklyn-Battery, and it cut power to some subway tunnels in lower Manhattan after water flowed into the stations and onto the tracks.
The subway system was shut down Sunday night, and the stock markets never opened Monday and are likely to be closed Tuesday as well.
The surge hit New York City hours after a construction crane atop a luxury high-rise collapsed in the wind and dangled precariously 74 floors above the street. Forecasters said the wind at the top the building may have been close to 95 mph.
As the storm drew near, airlines canceled more than 12,000 flights, disrupting the plans of travelers all over the world.
Storm damage was projected at $10 billion to $20 billion, meaning it could prove to be one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
Thirteen deaths were reported in New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Some of the victims were killed by falling trees. At least one death was blamed on the storm in Canada.
President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney canceled their campaign appearances at the very height of the race, with just over a week to go before Election Day. The president pledged the government's help and made a direct plea from the White House to those in the storm's path.
"When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate," he said. "Don't delay, don't pause, don't question the instructions that are being given, because this is a powerful storm."
Sandy, which killed 69 people in the Caribbean before making its way up the Atlantic, began to hook left at midday toward the New Jersey coast.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said people were stranded in Atlantic City, which sits on a barrier island. He accused the mayor of allowing them to stay there. With the hurricane roaring through, Christie warned it was no longer safe for rescuers, and advised people who didn't evacuate the coast to "hunker down" until morning.
"I hope, I pray, that there won't be any loss of life because of it," he said.
While the hurricane's 90 mph winds registered as only a Category 1 on a scale of five, it packed "astoundingly low" barometric pressure, giving it terrific energy to push water inland, said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at MIT.
And the New York metropolitan area apparently got the worst of it, because it was on the dangerous northeastern wall of the storm.
"We are looking at the highest storm surges ever recorded" in the Northeast, said Jeff Masters, meteorology director for Weather Underground, a private forecasting service. "The energy of the storm surge is off the charts, basically."
Hours before landfall, there was graphic evidence of the storm's power.
Off North Carolina, a replica of the 18th-century sailing ship HMS Bounty that was built for the 1962 Marlon Brando movie "Mutiny on the Bounty" went down in the storm, and 14 crew members were rescued by helicopter from rubber lifeboats bobbing in 18-foot seas. Another crew member was found hours later but was unresponsive. The captain was missing.
At Cape May, water sloshed over the seawall, and it punched through dunes in other seaside communities.
"When I think about how much water is already in the streets, and how much more is going to come with high tide tonight, this is going to be devastating," said Bob McDevitt, president of the main Atlantic City casino workers union. "I think this is going to be a really bad situation tonight."
In Maryland, at least 100 feet of a fishing pier at the beach resort of Ocean City was destroyed.
At least half a million people along the East Coast had been ordered to evacuate, including 375,000 from low-lying parts of New York City.
Sheila Gladden left her home in Philadelphia's flood-prone Eastwick neighborhood, which took on 5½ feet of water during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and headed for a hotel.
"I'm not going through this again," she said.
Those who stayed behind had few ways to get out.
Not only was the New York subway shut down, but the Holland Tunnel connecting New York to New Jersey was closed, as was a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and several other spans were closed because of high winds.
Zezima reported from Atlantic City, N.J. AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Washington. Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed in Raleigh, N.C.; David Porter in Pompton Lakes, N.J.; Wayne Parry in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.; and David Dishneau in Delaware also contributed.