Firefighters were still assessing the damage Saturday, but an hour after it struck there were still no reported injuries and the area affected by the storm appeared small.
Videos taken by bystanders showed a funnel cloud hurling sand and debris in the air, and possibly small pieces of buildings, as it moved through the Breezy Point section of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens.
"It was crazy," said neighborhood resident Joseph Mure, who was in the shower when the storm hit, and went outside to snap a picture of the retreating funnel. "There were a lot of sirens going off. You could see it twisting."
Fire Department officials said there were power lines down and possibly other damage.
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 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.
Thomas Sullivan, general manager of the Breezy Point Surf Club, said the twister ripped up cabanas and deck chairs.
"A lot of rain, a lot of wind," he said. "It picked up picnic benches. It picked up Dumpsters."
Half an hour later the weather was beautiful, but he's had to close the club to clean up the damage.
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.
The Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for Queens and Brooklyn at around 10:40 a.m. as the storm began to move through the city. Reports of storm damage in Breezy Point began coming in at around 11:15 a.m.
The storm delayed play at the U.S. Open tennis tournament a few miles away.