"I was showing videos of tornadoes to my 4-year-old on my phone, and two minutes later, it hit," said neighborhood resident Peter Maloney. "Just like they always say, it sounded like a train."
In the storm's wake, the community of seaside bungalows was littered with broken flower pots, knocked-down fences and smashed windows.
At the Breezy Point Surf Club, the tornado ripped the roofs off rows of cabanas, scattered deck chairs and left a heavy metal barbecue and propane tank sitting in the middle of a softball field, at least 100 yards from any nearby home.
"It picked up picnic benches. It picked up Dumpsters," said the club's general manager, Thomas Sullivan.
Half an hour later the weather was beautiful, but he had to close the club to clean up the damage.
The roof of Bob O'Hara's cabana was torn off, leaving tubes of sunscreen, broken beer bottles and an old TV set exposed to the elements.
"We got a new sunroof," said O'Hara, who has spent summer weekends at the Breezy Point club for his entire 52 years. "The TV was getting thrown out anyway," he added.
The tornado struck as part of a line of storms that were expected to bring damaging winds, hail, heavy rain and possibly more tornadoes throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeast on Saturday. Across New York state, in Buffalo, strong winds from a broad front of thunderstorms blew roofing off of some buildings and sent bricks falling into the street.
The city of Albany canceled the evening portion of an outdoor jazz festival because of the threat of storms, and hundreds of upstate New York homes lost power as the weather system moved through.
The storm system killed four people, including a child, in Oklahoma on Friday.
Radar data, video and witness reports confirmed that the cyclone that hit New York City was a tornado, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Hofmann said. He said an inspection team would assess the damage and before estimating the strength of the storm. Hofmann said some witnesses were reporting that the wind had been strong enough to lift cars off the pavement.
Lizann Maher, a worker at Kennedy's Restaurant at the edge of Jamaica Bay, said she saw a "swirling cone kind of thing with something flying in it" come down and then head back out into the water toward Brooklyn.
"It was scary. We have all glass so we kept saying, 'Get away from the glass!' just in case it did come back around," she said.
Tornadoes were once exceedingly rare in New York, but they have occurred with regularity in recent years. A small tornado uprooted trees on Long Island last month. In 2010, a September storm spawned two tornadoes that knocked down thousands of trees and blew off a few rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens. A small tornado struck the same year in the Bronx. In 2007, a more powerful tornado damaged homes in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
The storm delayed play at the U.S. Open tennis tournament a few miles away. The women's final, scheduled for Saturday night, was postponed until Sunday because of a forecast of additional rain. The second of two men's semifinals was suspended Saturday with David Ferrer leading Novak Djokovic 5-2 in the first set.
Associated Press writers David B. Caruso in New York and Ed Donahue in Washington contributed to this report.
More severe weather
In northeast Oklahoma, authorities say a couple and their grandchild had no time to reach a shelter before winds from a severe thunderstorm flung their mobile home into a creek, killing them. The three were among four people who died in severe storms that blasted through Oklahoma on Friday. A Missouri truck driver also was killed when winds flipped his semi.