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Sandy slams U.N. headquarters

The U.N.'s newly renovated landmark building on First Avenue was still reeling Wednesday from the impact of superstorm Sandy, which flooded Turtle Bay's third basement with several feet of water, paralyzing the building's electronic nerve center and preventing many U.N. staffers from returning to their offices. The U.N. issued an emergency bulletin today that said the building is due to open tomorrow, though offices above floor 17 will not be accessible.

The white tent that serves as the official delegates entryway to the United Nations General Assembly was ripped to shreds by the gale force winds. A large white sheet of plastic that stretched over the U.N. General Assembly dome is also stripped away, creating the impression, if not the reality, that the world's parliament had been cracked open to the elements.

The United Nations slowly emerged from storm today, as some U.N. officials either worked from their computers and Blackberrys at home, or returned to a network of U.N. offices beyond the main compound that had better withstood the storm's punch. But the U.N. secretariat's server appeared to be misfiring even today, as multiple emails sent to U.N. officials were returned to sender hours later.

The Security Council scheduled its first post-storm meeting in a temporary conference room on the U.N. compound north lawn building, which has served as Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's office throughout the $1 billion-plus restoration of U.N. headquarters.

The Security Council extended the mandate for African Union peacekeepers in Somalia before it was due to expire today and adopted a statement promoting the role of women in peace and security.

But there were no plans to address some of the council's more pressing issues, including the Syrian ceasefire that never really took hold over last weekend. "I don't thing there will be much substance today," said one council diplomat.

The U.N. Development Program is "slowly beginning to return to normal," said Heraldo Munoz, an assistant secretary general at UNDP, who returned to work at his office across the street from U.N. headquarters. "We have several people working, mainly people living in Manhattan, but we are in communication with those people who could not make it and are working from their homes."

The flooding at U.N. headquarters has inflicted "severe damage to the building's communications infrastructure," he said. "There was flooding that affected the machinery and power that cools the computer machinery" that runs the building.

Another U.N. diplomat said that the Secretariat's "information and communications technology and electrical infrastructure are very, very damaged. UNDP's and UNICEF's are in much better shape. There will be many questions about this in the coming days."

The U.N. has previously been closed on the occasional workday, including on 9/11, when U.N. staff were evacuated amid fears that terrorists would attack the diplomatic center. But U.N. officials said today that they could not recall another episode when a natural disaster had forced the U.N. Secretariat to shutter its doors for so long, three days so far.

As of this morning, U.N. security continued to prohibit all but repair crews from entering headquarters.

Much of the U.N.'s diplomatic community remained partially cut off from their colleagues, communicating with Blackberrys that stopped working for much of the day on Tuesday.

Many U.N.-based diplomats, particularly younger, mid-level staff who don't reside in official residences, live in lower Manhattan, which suffered a massive blackout, or in the suburbs of Westchester County, which also saw significant losses of electricity.

"The impact for me has been total isolation," said one European diplomat posted at the United Nations. "I've been totally stuck in a powerless building.... I have very little insight to what's been going on" at headquarters.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Photo courtesy of Heraldo Munoz

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