The storm on Thursday evening toppled trees, peeled away roofs and killed a woman in a car who had just swapped seats with her husband.
The fury of wind and rain that pummeled the area was New York City's ninth and 10th tornadoes since 1950, the National Weather Service said Friday night.
Kyle Struckmann, a meteorologist with the agency, said it was amazing that only one person died.
"It's practically a miracle considering the population that was affected by this," he said.
One of the tornadoes struck Brooklyn at 5:33 p.m. Thursday, with winds up to 80 mph, and carved its way northeast from the Park Slope section, Struckmann said. The second one hit Queens at 5:42 p.m., with winds up to 100 mph, traveling 4 miles from the Flushing section to a mile north of Bayside.
It was that second twister that snapped trees and scattered them like bowling pins, downing power lines and crushing vehicles, including a car in Queens where Aline Levakis was killed, according to the National Weather Service. She was in the parked car with her husband, Billy Levakis. The couple, from Pennsylvania, had just switched seats in the car, said a former business partner, Peter Markos. Billy Levakis survived.
It was the macroburst that packed the biggest punch with its winds up to 125 mph, said Brian Ciemnecki, a National Weather Service meteorologist. Stretching 8 miles long and 5 miles wide, the macroburst started in the Middle Village section of Queens and ended in Forest Hills. A macroburst is an intense gust of wind that pours down from a storm.
"The large majority of damage was associated with the macroburst," Ciemnecki said.
Officials initially had reported that a microburst hit the city but later corrected that to say it was a macroburst, because it was more than 2 1/2-miles long.
Strong winds caused storm damage on Staten Island, authorities said.
The storm was part of a line that rippled across much of the Northeast before completing its run in New York City during the Thursday evening rush hour in a matter of minutes. It caught nearly everyone off guard, including commuters heading home and parents picking up children from after-school activities.
"There are lots of stories of people who came very close to being hit by a big tree and killed, but fortunately there was only one," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday. "And that one was really tragic."
Investigators on Friday had mapped out the width and intensity of the storm to determine whether a tornado touched down, Struckmann said. The probe included surveying the aftermath by helicopter.
Stunned residents sifted through the debris Friday, and utility crews worked to restore power in blacked-out neighborhoods. The number of customers without power peaked at 37,000, but that gradually improved Friday. About 14,000 customers, mostly in Queens, had no power late Friday.
Consolidated Edison said it expects to restore power to most customers by Saturday night, and all service by Sunday night. On a badly hit Brooklyn block of 1890s brownstones in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the storm swept away parts of rooftops on at least six homes.
One four-story rowhouse was so waterlogged that walls were marked Friday with large black Xs - meaning they were to be torn down. In the yard behind, debris lay piled up, including parts of the roof, a crushed gazebo and a whole tree that landed there from two houses away.
"Just look at this," said owner Babe Hatcher, standing in the backyard.
Pointing at the top floor, he said: "No one can sleep up there; there's no ceiling. You can see the sky."
Department of Buildings Commissioner Robert Limandri said the city had received more than 60 reports of buildings with possible structural damage. Officials had ordered residents out of some of the worst-hit homes in Brooklyn.
The city parks department said it was still assessing the tree damage and cautioned that cleanup would likely go on for days. The parks commissioner warned pedestrians to be careful walking under trees that might have broken branches.
All over the city, witnesses compared stories of what they had seen - street signs uprooted, storefront windows blown out, thick tree trunks snapped in half, a parked van lifted a foot into the air.
"A huge tree limb, like 25 feet long, flew right up the street, up the hill and stopped in the middle of the air 50 feet up in this intersection and started spinning," said Steve Carlisle, 54. "It was like a poltergeist."
"Then all the garbage cans went up in the air and this spinning tree hits one of them like it was a bat on a ball. The can was launched way, way over there," he said, pointing at a building about 120 feet away where a metal garbage can lay flattened.
Ruby Ellis was doing dishes when the storm wailed over her house and yanked on the roof.
"The wind was holding my ceiling up in the air. It was like a wave; it went up and fell back down," Ellis said. "After the roof went up, then all the rain came down and I had a flood."
The line of storms began its work in the west. At least seven tornadoes were confirmed in Ohio, where storms flipped mobile homes, injured several people and damaged part of an Ohio State University campus. A small tornado also touched down in southern New Jersey, knocking over trees and damaging two houses.
The last twister to hit New York City was in July, a small one that whirled through the Bronx during a thunderstorm that left thousands without power. In 2007, a tornado with winds as high as 135 mph touched down in Staten Island and Brooklyn, where it damaged homes and sucked the roof off a car dealership.
Associated Press Writers Cristian Salazar, Beth J. Harpaz, Ula Ilnytzky, David B. Caruso and Charles Sheehan contributed to this report.