HURRICANE SANDY BORE down on the Eastern Seaboard’s largest cities, forcing the shut down of mass transit, schools and financial markets.
Coastal residents were sent fleeing for higher ground as the storm threatens a dangerous mix of high winds, soaking rain and a surging wall of water up to 11 feet tall.
Sandy stayed on a predicted path that could take it over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York on its way to a collision course with two other weather systems, creating a superstorm with the potential for havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.
About two to three feet of snow were even forecast for mountainous parts of West Virginia. The tempest could endanger up to 50 million people for days.
Many workers planned to stay home today as subways, buses and trains shut down across the region under the threat of flooding that could inundate tracks and tunnels.
Airports also closed, and authorities warned that the time for evacuation was running out or already past. Utilities brought in extra crews in anticipation of widespread power failures.
The centre of the storm was positioned to come ashore later tonight in New Jersey, meaning the worst of the surge could be in the northern part of that state and in New York City and on Long Island.
Higher tides brought by a full moon compounded the threat to the metropolitan area of about 20 million people.
“This is the worst-case scenario,” said Louis Uccellini, environmental prediction chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As rain from the leading edges began to fall over the Northeast on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people from Maryland to Connecticut were ordered to leave low-lying coastal areas, including 375,000 in lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City, 50,000 in Delaware and 30,000 in Atlantic City, N.J., where the city’s 12 casinos shut down for only the fourth time ever.
“I think this one’s going to do us in,” said Mark Palazzolo, who boarded up his bait-and-tackle shop in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., with the same wood he used in past storms, crossing out the names of Hurricanes Isaac and Irene and spray-painting “Sandy” next to them.
“I got a call from a friend of mine from Florida last night who said, ‘Mark, get out! If it’s not the storm, it’ll be the aftermath. People are going to be fighting in the streets over gasoline and food.’”
President Barack Obama declared emergencies in several states including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, authorizing federal relief work to begin well ahead of time.
He promised the government would “respond big and respond fast” to states and cities after the storm hits.
“My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape,” Obama said. “We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules.”
“Don’t be stupid. Get out.”
Authorities warned that New York could get hit with a surge of seawater that could swamp parts of lower Manhattan, flood subway tunnels and cripple the network of electrical and communications lines that are vital to the nation’s financial centre.
Major US financial markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and CME Group in Chicago, plan a rare shut down. The NYSE shut down on Sept. 27, 1985, for Hurricane Gloria. The United Nations also shut down and cancelled all meetings at its New York headquarters.
New York called off school for the city’s 1.1 million students and announced it would suspend all train, bus and subway service Sunday night. More than 5 million riders a day depend on the transit system.
“If you don’t evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned. “This is a serious and dangerous storm.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was typically blunt: “Don’t be stupid. Get out.”
Wary of being seen as putting their political pursuits ahead of public safety, Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney reshuffled campaign plans as the storm approached.
In Virginia, one of the most competitive states, election officials eased absentee voting requirements for those affected by the storm. Early voting was canceled Monday in Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 75 mph, was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began traveling northward, parallel to the Eastern Seaboard.
As of 2am this morning, it was centred about 425 miles southeast of New York City, moving to the north at 14 mph, with hurricane-force winds extending an unusual 175 miles from its centre.