Clouds close in over Manhattan as Hurricane Sandy approaches. Many residents… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Hundreds of thousands of people were told to flee low-lying areas, New York and Washington shut down their subways, federal offices and local schools closed, and presidential candidates curtailed their campaigning as Hurricane Sandy roared ever closer to the Eastern Seaboard on Sunday, promising epic storm surges, howling winds and drenching rain across much of the Mid-Atlantic region and Northeast.
Facing the fury of a storm system nearly 1,000 miles wide, at least five states declared emergencies. Airlines canceled more than 7,000 flights, and anxious families and businesses from North Carolina to Maine were warned to expect power blackouts lasting days or longer once the storm makes landfall, probably late Monday night. More than 450,000 people were ordered to evacuate.
With high tides driven by a full moon, forecasters warned of devastating waves and tidal surges 6 to 11 feet above normal that could trigger flash floods and treacherous conditions from New Jersey to southern New England. As far west as Chicago, the National Weather Service cautioned that Lake Michigan's waves could reach 16 to 22 feet — about four times normal.
PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime storm," said Tom Kines, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather. The damage "is going to be phenomenal."
The storm, which was expected to get even worse once it slammed into two other weather systems, churned northwest in the Atlantic and appeared likely to slam ashore with winds at or near hurricane force in southern New Jersey. But unlike most hurricanes, the eye of this monster wasn't the focal point.
"The winds are spread out over a huge area," said Todd Kimberlain, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Strong winds "are going to extend all the way up into Boston."
Hurricane-force winds were expected to whip parts of the coastline between Chincoteague, Va., and Chatham, Mass., the weather service said, a distance of 540 miles. Heavy snows were expected when Sandy collided with a cold front.
As federal and state officials scrambled to open shelters and position emergency supplies, President Obama joined a conference call with the governors of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, as well as the mayors of several major cities.
Obama promised to "cut through red tape" to help states respond. "We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules," he said.
The president warned that the storm's creeping pace could worsen destruction and hinder the cleanup. "It is important for us to respond big and to respond fast," he said after a meeting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney canceled plans to campaign in Virginia and scrubbed events in New Hampshire — both among swing states where the race to Nov. 6 has been hottest.
Both campaigns also said they would stop soliciting funds in storm-affected states. In some areas, campaign workers began collecting and delivering supplies to emergency centers.
"I know that right now some people in the country are a little nervous about a storm about to hit the coast," Romney told about 2,000 supporters at a rally in Findlay, Ohio. "And our thoughts and prayers are with the people who will find themselves in harm's way."
Several candidates urged supporters in threatened areas to remove campaign signs. "The last thing we want is for yard signs to become projectiles," said Tim Kaine, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.
In Maryland, where voters casting early ballots formed lines three or four blocks long Sunday under pewter-gray skies, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley announced he would halt early voting Monday to keep voters out of danger. The state is considered a sure win for Obama.
But Sandy's impact on Democratic and Republican get-out-the-vote efforts in closely contested battlegrounds like North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire was less clear. A large turnout generally benefits Democrats.
With millions of people at risk of losing power, utility companies rushed in reinforcement crews and equipment from as far away as New Mexico. Some areas could get a foot of rain over several days, and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic region was likely to get 4 to 8 inches.
Officials warned that the combination of downed trees, flooding, fallen power lines and other dangers were a lethal mix. Hurricane Sandy left about 60 people dead in the Caribbean last week before heading north.
Not even Halloween was safe.
"To have to cancel is a little bit heartbreaking," Nicole Purmal said Sunday as workers dismantled rides and game stalls at Coney Island's Luna Park, where the "Night of Horrors" was called off. "You just don't want to take the risk," said Purmal, marketing manager at Coney Island, 15 miles from midtown Manhattan.