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Storm brings strong winds, rain to East Coast

A potent storm system that spawned tornadoes in the South reached the Northeast on Wednesday, where it knocked out power to thousands, closed the Statue of Liberty and delayed flights for hours. At least three people were killed.

Sandbags were handed out in Washington, D.C., to protect homes from flooding. Thousands were without electricity in the mid-Atlantic region and New York, and some schools delayed openings. By early evening, the storms had moved into New England, where wind gusts of up to 70 mph knocked out power to 35,000 customers in Vermont.

In Connecticut, the storm toppled trees and flooded streets near the shore. More than 20,000 customers lost power, according to Connecticut Light & Power.

Truck driver John Helwig, 59, said it was so windy as he passed through Bridgeport that traffic was only moving 40-50 mph on the open highway.

"It was pretty bad; the truck's rocking back and forth," he said at a gas station in Milford.

In New York, gusts of winds that snapped a huge, lighted Christmas tree at the South Street Seaport also prompted the closure of the Statue of Liberty. Late into the evening, some flights at the metropolitan area's three major airports were delayed up to two hours.

Commuter rail service between Newark, N.J., and New York City was briefly suspended due to overhead wire damage, New Jersey Transit said.

Repairs were made by late afternoon, but residual delays and cancellations wreaked havoc on commuters.

Jonathan Betz, 33, a software programmer from Summit, N.J., works in Manhattan and usually takes the 8:02 p.m. train home from Penn Station.

But on Wednesday evening, it was canceled. "I looked down at the others and saw canceled, canceled, canceled," he said. "That's when I knew I was in trouble."

He had to walk one block to catch the first of two other trains, adding about an hour to his trip. The second train, which took him from one New Jersey suburb to another, was standing room only, with conductors squeezing past commuters standing in the aisle.

The rain caused discomfort throughout Manhattan, where broken umbrellas peeked out from trash cans and many pedestrians were soaked.

"I'm about 45 percent drenched," said Charles Hendricks, 33, passing out fliers in front of a Manhattan store. "My arms, my legs, my hat. But I still prefer a wet day over a cold day, especially in December."

In New Jersey, a man was killed and his wife injured when a tree toppled and struck their car, West Milford police said.

Thousands in New Jersey were without power, as well as in upstate New York, where blowing snow caused treacherous driving conditions.

Hundreds of miles to the south, residents in Buford, Ga., were cleaning up after a tornado with winds as high as 130 mph whipped through Tuesday, damaging more than 50 homes, the National Weather Service said. No injuries were reported there.

As the storm hit, Tami O'Connor walked into her living room to tell her two children to go to the basement, and the room imploded, she said. No one was hurt, and though half of the room was sucked into her backyard, some of it was left intact.

"The baby Jesus is still on the mantel," she said.

About 30 miles away, in an unincorporated area of suburban Atlanta, 54-year-old Matthew Mitchell died after a tree fell on the car he was driving Tuesday. Police believe strong wind gusts blew the tree over.

At least two tornadoes touched down in South Carolina on Tuesday, the National Weather service said. A tornado also hit Georgia on Tuesday and authorities were investigating whether one touched down in Louisiana on Monday.

In Tennessee, a rock slide followed 2 inches of rain, blocking part of a highway between Knoxville and its airport. Flooding closed roads in the Carolinas, which got up to 6 inches of rain in some areas. In Greenville County, S.C., 50-year-old Rita Hunter of Travelers Rest was killed Tuesday when she lost control of her car on a wet roadway and struck a tree.

Earlier, the storm brought suspected tornadoes to Louisiana and Mississippi, where more than a dozen people were injured. In Yazoo City, Miss., which was hit months ago by a severe tornado, 63-year-old Clarence Taylor said the town again looked like a war zone. The winds blew off a tarp he had put on his roof to cover damage from the April storm.

"This is the second time it dropped down on this street in just six months," Taylor said. "I've been through it, man."

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Associated Press writers Kate Brumback in Atlanta, Johnny C. Clark in Buford, Ga.; Jeffrey S. Collins in Columbia, S.C.; Samantha Henry in Newark, N.J.; Bruce Shipkowski and Shawn Marsh in Trenton, N.J.; Dave Collins in Hartford, Conn.; John Christoffersen in Milford, Conn.; and Verena Dobnik in New York City contributed to this report.