Sandy strengthens as hurricane off East Coast; evacuations begin in some states

Hurricane Sandy, barreling north from the Caribbean, is expected to make landfall early Tuesday near the Delaware coast.

NOAA

Hurricane Sandy, barreling north from the Caribbean, is expected to make landfall early Tuesday near the Delaware coast.

A restaurant worker piles sand bags at the entrance of the business as Hurricane Sandy approaches the Atlantic Coast, in Ocean City, Md., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

AP

A restaurant worker piles sand bags at the entrance of the business as Hurricane Sandy approaches the Atlantic Coast, in Ocean City, Md., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. (AP) — Forget distinctions like tropical storm or hurricane. Don't get fixated on a particular track. Wherever it hits, the rare behemoth storm inexorably gathering in the eastern U.S. will afflict a third of the country with sheets of rain, high winds and heavy snow, say officials who warned millions in coastal areas to get out of the way.

"We're looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people," said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As Hurricane Sandy barreled north from the Caribbean — where it left nearly five dozen dead — to meet two other powerful winter storms, experts said it didn't matter how strong the storm was when it hit land: The rare hybrid storm that follows will cause havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.

"This is not a coastal threat alone," said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "This is a very large area."

New Jersey was set to close its casinos this weekend, New York's governor was considering shutting down the subways to avoid flooding and half a dozen states warned residents to prepare for several days of lost power.

Sandy weakened briefly to a tropical storm early Saturday but was soon back up to Category 1 strength, packing 75 mph winds about 335 miles southeast of Charleston, S.C., as of 5 p.m. Experts said the storm was most likely to hit the southern New Jersey coastline by late Monday or early Tuesday.

Governors from North Carolina, where heavy rain was expected Sunday, to Connecticut declared states of emergency. Delaware ordered mandatory evacuations for coastal communities by 8 p.m. Saturday.

New Jersey's Chris Christie, who was widely criticized for not interrupting a family vacation in Florida while a snowstorm pummeled the state in 2010, broke off campaigning for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in North Carolina Friday to return home.

"I can be as cynical as anyone," the pugnacious chief executive said in a bit of understatement Saturday. "But when the storm comes, if it's as bad as they're predicting, you're going to wish you weren't as cynical as you otherwise might have been."

The storm forced the presidential campaign to juggle schedules. Romney scrapped plans to campaign Sunday in the swing state of Virginia and switched his schedule for the day to Ohio. First Lady Michelle Obama cancelled an appearance in New Hampshire for Tuesday, and President Barack Obama moved a planned Monday departure for Florida to Sunday night to beat the storm.

In Ship Bottom, just north of Atlantic City, Alice and Giovanni Stockton-Rossini spent Saturday packing clothing in the back yard of their home, a few hundred yards from the ocean on Long Beach Island. Their neighborhood was under a voluntary evacuation order, but they didn't need to be forced.

"It's really frightening," Alice Stockton-Rossi said. "But you know how many times they tell you, 'This is it, it's really coming and it's really the big one' and then it turns out not to be? I'm afraid people will tune it out because of all the false alarms before, and the one time you need to take it seriously, you won't. This one might be the one."

A few blocks away, Russ Linke was taking no chances. He and his wife secured the patio furniture, packed the bicycles into the pickup truck, and headed off the island.

"I've been here since 1997, and I never even put my barbecue grill away during a storm. But I am taking this one seriously," he said.

What makes the storm so dangerous and unusual is that it is coming at the tail end of hurricane season and the beginning of winter storm season, "so it's kind of taking something from both," said Jeff Masters, director of the private service Weather Underground.

Masters said the storm could be bigger than the worst East Coast storm on record — the 1938 New England hurricane known as the Long Island Express, which killed nearly 800 people. "Part hurricane, part nor'easter — all trouble," he said. Experts said to expect high winds over 800 miles and up to 2 feet of snow as well inland as West Virginia.

And the storm was so big, and the convergence of the three storms so rare, that "we just can't pinpoint who is going to get the worst of it," said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Officials are particularly worried about the possibility of subway flooding in New York City, said Uccellini.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to prepare to shut the city's subways, buses and suburban trains by Sunday, but delayed making a final decision. The city shut the subways down before last year's Hurricane Irene, and a Columbia University study predicted that an Irene surge just 1 foot higher would have paralyzed lower Manhattan.

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard and far inland, officials urged residents and businesses to prepare in big ways and little.

The Virginia National Guard was authorized to call up to 500 troops to active duty for debris removal and road-clearing, while homeowners stacked sandbags at their front doors in coastal towns.

Utility officials warned rains could saturate the ground, causing trees to topple into power lines, and told residents to prepare for several days at home without power. "We're facing a very real possibility of widespread, prolonged power outages," said, Ruth Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

Warren Ellis, who was on an annual fishing pilgrimage on North Carolina's Outer Banks, didn't act fast enough to get home.

Ellis' 73-year-old father, Steven, managed to get off uninhabited Portsmouth Island near Cape Hatteras by ferry Friday. But the son and his 10-foot camper got stranded when high winds and surf forced state officials to suspend service Saturday.

"We might not get off here until Tuesday or Wednesday, which doesn't hurt my feelings that much," said Ellis, 44, of Ammissville, Va. "Because the fishing's going to be really good after this storm."

Last year, Hurricane Irene poked a new inlet through the island, cutting the only road off Hatteras Island for about 4,000.

In Maine, lobsterman Greg Griffen wasn't taking any chances; he moved 100 of his traps to deep water, where they are more vulnerable to shifting and damage in a storm.

"Some of my competitors have been pulling their traps and taking them right home," said Griffen. The dire forecast "sort of encouraged them to pull the plug on the season."

In Muncy Valley north of Philadelphia, Rich Fry learned his lesson from last year, when Tropical Storm Lee inundated his Katie's Country Store.

In between helping customers picking up necessities Saturday, Fry was moving materials above the flood line. Fry said he was still trying to recover from the losses of last year's storm, which he and his wife, Deb, estimated at the time at $35,000 in merchandise.

"It will take a lot of years to cover that," he said.

Christie's emergency declaration will force the shutdown of Atlantic City's 12 casinos for only the fourth time in the 34-year history of legalized gambling here. The approach of Hurricane Irene shut down the casinos for three days last August.

Atlantic City officials said they would begin evacuating the gambling hub's 30,000 residents at noon Sunday, busing them to mainland shelters and schools.

Tom Foley, Atlantic City's emergency management director, recalled the March 1962 storm when the ocean and the bay met in the center of the city.

"This is predicted to get that bad," he said.

Mike Labarbera, who came from Brooklyn to gamble at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, thought the caution was overblown.

"I think it's stupid," he said. "I don't think it's going to be a hurricane. I think they're overreacting."

Ray Leonard disagreed, and has a famous storm survival story to back him up.

Leonard rode out 1991's infamous "perfect storm", made famous by the Sebastian Junger bestseller of the same name, with two cremates in his 32-foot sailboat, Satori, before being plucked from the Atlantic off Martha's Vineyard, Mass., by a Coast Guard helicopter.

The 85-year-old former sailor said Saturday that if he had loved ones living in the projected landfall area, he would tell them to leave.

"Don't be rash," Leonard said in a telephone interview Saturday from his home in Fort Myers, Fla. "Because if this does hit, you're going to lose all those little things you've spent the last 20 years feeling good about."

Posted earlier

SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. — With much of the Eastern Seaboard in the path of a rare behemoth storm, governors in the nation's most densely populated corridor declared states of emergency and residents contemplated whether to heed dire warnings of torrential rain, high winds and up to 2 feet of snow.

"You know how many times they tell you, 'This is it, it's really coming and it's really the big one,' and then it turns out not to be?" said Alice Stockton-Rossini as she packed up to leave her home a few hundred yards from the ocean in Ship Bottom. "I'm afraid people will tune it out because of all the false alarms before, and the one time you need to take it seriously, you won't. This one might be the one."

Hurricane Sandy, upgraded again Saturday just hours after forecasters said it had weakened to a tropical storm, was barreling north from the Caribbean and was expected to make landfall early Tuesday near the Delaware coast, then hit two winter weather systems as it moves inland, creating a hybrid monster storm.

Even if Sandy loses strength and makes landfall as something less than a hurricane, the combined superstorm was expected to bring misery to a huge section of the East. An 800-mile wide swath of the country could see 50 mph winds regardless of Sandy's strength.

Experts said the storm could be wider and stronger than Irene, which caused more than $15 billion in damage, and could rival the worst East Coast storm on record. On Saturday morning, forecasters said hurricane-force winds of 75 mph could be felt 100 miles away from the storm's center.

Up and down the coast, people were cautioned to be prepared for days without electricity. Several governors, including Connecticut's Dannel Malloy and New Jersey's Chris Christie, declared states of emergency. And airlines said to expect cancellations and waived change fees for passengers who want to reschedule.

Mandatory evacuations were under way in southern New Jersey's barrier islands, which people were ordered to leave by Sunday afternoon, and Christie ordered the evacuations of all Atlantic City casinos and said state parks would close.

"We should not underestimate the impact of this storm and not assume the predictions will be wrong," Christie said during a storm briefing Saturday in North Midletown, near the coast. "We have to be prepared for the worst."

In North Carolina's Outer Banks, light rain was falling Saturday and winds were building up to a predicted 30 to 50 mph. Gov. Beverly Purdue declared a state of emergency for some coastal areas, and a steady stream of campers and other vehicles hauling boats left the low-lying islands for the mainland. Residents feared a temporary bridge built after Irene last year poked a new inlet through the island could be washed out again, severing the only road off Hatteras Island.

In Ship Bottom, N.J., Russ Linke was taking no chances Saturday. He and his wife secured the patio furniture, packed the bicycles into the pickup truck and headed off the island.

"I've been here since 1997, and I never even put my barbecue grill away during a storm, but I am taking this one seriously," he said. "They say it might hit here; that's about as serious as it can get."

After Irene left millions without power, utilities were taking no chances and were lining up extra crews and tree-trimmers. Wind threatened to topple power lines, and trees that still have leaves could be weighed down by snow and fall over if the weight becomes too much.

New York City began precautions for an ominous but still uncertain forecast. No decision had been made on whether any of the city's public transportation outlets would be shut, despite predictions that a sudden shift of the storm's path could cause a surge of 3 to 6 feet in the subways.

The subway system was completely shuttered during Irene, the first such shutdown ever for weather-related reasons. Irene largely missed the city but struck other areas hard.

The storm loomed a little more than a week before Election Day, while several states were heavily involved in campaigning, canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Democratic Vice President Joe Biden canceled weekend campaign events in coastal Virginia Beach, Va., though their events in other parts of the states were going on as planned. In Rhode Island, politicians asked supporters to take down yard signs for fear they might turn into projectiles in the storm.

Sandy killed more than 40 people in the Caribbean, wrecked homes and knocked down trees and power lines.

Early Saturday, the storm was about 355 miles (571 kilometers) southeast of Charleston, S.C. Its sustained wind speed was about 75 mph (121 kph).

Sandy was projected to hit the Atlantic Coast early Tuesday. As it turns back to the north and northwest and merges with colder air from a winter system, West Virginia and further west into eastern Ohio and southern Pennsylvania are expected to get snow. Forecasters were looking at the Delaware shore as the spot the storm will turn inland, bringing 10 inches of rain and extreme storm surges, said Louis Uccellini, environmental prediction director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Up to 2 feet of snow was predicted to fall on West Virginia, with lighter snow in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the forecasting service Weather Underground, said this could be as big, perhaps bigger, than the worst East Coast storm on record, a 1938 New England hurricane that is sometimes known as the Long Island Express, which killed nearly 800 people.

While rains were light Saturday in North Carolina's Outer Banks, winds were building up to a predicted 30 to 50 mph and a steady stream of campers and other vehicles hauling boats or with kayaks strapped to the roof were headed off the low-lying islands to the mainland. Local residents were preparing for power outages lasting days and fearing a temporary bridge built after Hurricane Irene poked a new inlet through the island last year could be washed out again, cutting off the only road out of Hatteras Island.

Retirees Larry and Jean Collier, of Brantford, Ontario, were leaving their beachfront hotel in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., early Saturday and trying to plot their route home knowing they risked driving into a mess.

"I'll try to split (the trip) right down the middle, not too close to Washington, not too far west," Larry Collier said. "The storm has kind of put a wrench in it."

Others were shrugging off dire predictions. Warren Ellis and his 10-foot-long camper were stuck on an uninhabited Outer Banks island on his annual fishing pilgrimage, the conditions too rough Saturday for the ferry to carry him to safer ground.

"We might not get off here until Tuesday or Wednesday, which doesn't hurt my feelings that much because the fishing's going to be really good after this storm. It's always good after a storm," said Ellis, 44, of Amissville, Va.

Posted earlier

MIAMI — Forecasters say Sandy has again reached hurricane strength, with sustained winds of 75 mph.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Saturday morning that a Hurricane Hunter aircraft found Sandy had sustained winds powerful enough to upgrade it to a Category 1 hurricane. It had been downgraded to a tropical storm just hours earlier.

Regardless of its official category, Sandy is expected to be a monstrous storm that poses a serious threat for the entire Eastern Seaboard.

Forecasters say Sandy is a massive cyclone, with hurricane-force winds recorded as far as 100 miles away from the eye of the storm.

Tropical storm conditions could be felt in the Carolinas by Saturday evening.

EARLIER TODAY:

Sandy downgraded to tropical storm, leaves 43 dead in Caribbean

Sandy, downgraded to a tropical storm at 5 a.m. Saturday, is swirling off toward the U.S. East Coast

NOAA

Sandy, downgraded to a tropical storm at 5 a.m. Saturday, is swirling off toward the U.S. East Coast

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Sandy, downgraded to a tropical storm at 5 a.m. Saturday, is swirling off toward the U.S. East Coast, leaving the Caribbean to mourn the storm-related deaths of at least 43 people and clean up wrecked homes, felled power lines and fallen tree branches.

While Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas took direct hits from the storm, the majority of deaths and most extensive damage was in impoverished Haiti, where it has rained almost non-stop since Tuesday.

The death toll in Haiti stood at 29 late Friday, but officials worried that the number could rise as searches continued in the country's ramshackle housing and denuded hillsides that are especially vulnerable to flooding when rains come.

Officials were concerned about a continuing rise in a river in the northern part of the capital, Port-au-Prince. People living nearby in mud-splattered, makeshift settlements kept a wary eye on the rush of muddy water.

"If the river busts its banks, it's going to create a lot of problems. It might kill a lot of people," said 51-year-old Seroine Pierre. "If death comes, we'll accept it. We're suffering, we're hungry, and we're just going to die hungry."

Officials reported flooding across Haiti, where 370,000 people are still living in flimsy shelters as a result of the devastating 2010 earthquake. Nearly 17,800 people had to move to 131 temporary shelters, the Civil Protection Office said.

Among those hoping for a dry place to stay was 35-year-old Iliodor Derisma in Port-au-Prince, who said the storm had caused a lot of anguish.

"It's wet all my clothes, and all the children aren't living well," he said. "We're hungry. We haven't received any food. If we had a shelter, that would be nice."

Officials at a morgue in the western town of Grand Goave said a mudslide crashed through a wooden home Thursday, killing 40-year-old Jacqueline Tatille and her four children, ranging in ages from 5 to 17.

"If the rain continues, for sure we'll have more people die," morgue deputy Joseph Franck Laporte said. "The earth cannot hold the rain."

On Friday, President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe handed out water bottles to dozens of people in a Port-au-Prince neighborhood. They also distributed money to local officials to help clean up the damage.

Sandy left dozens of families homeless across Jamaica when it barreled across the island Wednesday as a Category 1 hurricane. One man was crushed to death by a boulder that tumbled into his house.

The storm then gained strength and hit eastern Cuba as a Category 2 hurricane early Thursday. Eleven people died in Santiago and Guantanamo provinces as wind and rain tore into thousands of homes. Authorities said it was Cuba's deadliest storm since July 2005, when Category 5 Hurricane Dennis killed 16 people and caused $2.4 billion in damage.

Official news media said the storm caused 5,000 houses to at least partially collapse while 30,000 others lost roofs. Banana, coffee, bean and sugar crops were damaged.

The storm then churned into the Bahamas archipelago, toppling light posts, flooding roads and ripping down tree branches. Police said the British CEO of an investment bank died when he fell from his roof in upscale Lyford Cay late Thursday while trying to repair a window shutter. Officials at Deltec Bank & Trust identified him as Timothy Fraser-Smith, who became CEO in 2000.

Government officials in the Bahamas said the storm appeared to inflict the greatest damage on Cat Island, which took a direct hit, and Exuma.

"I hope that's it for the year," said Veronica Marshall, a 73-year-old hotel owner in Great Exuma. "I thought we would be going into the night, but around 3 o'clock it all died down. I was very happy about that."

On Long Island, farmers lost most of their crops and several roofs were torn off, legislator Loretta Butler-Turner said. The island was without power and many residents did not have access to fresh water, she said.

Power also was out on Acklins Island and most roads there were flooded, while the lone school on Ragged Island in the southern Bahamas was flooded.

In Puerto Rico, police said a man in his 50s died Friday in the southern town of Juana Diaz, swept away in a river swollen by rain from Sandy's outer bands. Flooding forced at least 100 families in southwestern Puerto Rico to seek shelter.

Authorities in the Dominican Republic evacuated more than 18,100 people after the storm destroyed several bridges and isolated at least 130 communities. Heavy rains and wind also damaged an estimated 3,500 homes.

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