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Originally published Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 6:55 PM

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Mass evacuations launched as superstorm Sandy approaches East Coast

As Hurricane Sandy barreled north from the Caribbean 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.

The Associated Press

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SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. — 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 (NOAA).

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 in case of 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.

The storm forced the presidential campaign to juggle schedules. Mitt 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 canceled an appearance in New Hampshire for Tuesday, and President Obama moved a planned Monday departure for Florida to Sunday night to beat the storm, and canceled Virginia and Colorado events on Monday and Tuesday.

In Ship Bottom, just north of Atlantic City, Alice and Giovanni Stockton-Rossini spent Saturday packing clothing in the backyard 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.

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 far inland as West Virginia.

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.

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 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.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's emergency declaration will force a rare shutdown of Atlantic City's 12 casinos.

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