Hurricane Sandy began veering as predicted early Monday on a path that would take it over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.
The hurricane was strengthening and the center of the storm was forecast to move over the coast of U.S. mid-Atlantic states by Monday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said on Monday.
The NHC said on Monday the Category 1 storm had strengthened as it turned toward the coast and was moving at 20 miles per hour (32 km per hour). It was expected to bring a "life-threatening storm surge," coastal hurricane winds and heavy snow in the Appalachian Mountains.
By late morning, the storm's top winds had strengthened to 90 mph. It was about 200 miles southeast of Atlantic City, N.J., where the emptied-out streets were mostly under water and where an old section of the historic boardwalk broke up and washed away.
The superstorm could endanger 50 million people in the most heavily populated corridor in the nation, with forecasters warning that the New York area could get the worst of it — an 11-foot wall of water.
In a news conference, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley said, "This is going to be a long haul. The days ahead are going to be very difficult. There will be people who die and are killed in this storm."
He added that the storm's impact on the state will be much more severe than previously thought just 24 hours ago.
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.
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"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."
Forecasting services indicated early Monday the center of the storm would strike the New Jersey shore near Atlantic City on Monday night. While Sandy does not pack the punch of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, it could become more potent as it approaches the U.S. coast.
"The time for preparing and talking is about over," Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate said as Hurricane Sandy made its way up the Atlantic on a collision course with two other weather systems that could turn it into one of the most fearsome storms on record in the U.S. "People need to be acting now."
Airlines canceled more than 7,200 flights and Amtrak began suspending train service across the Northeast. New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore moved to shut down their subways, buses and trains, and said schools would be closed on Monday. Boston also called off school. And all non-essential government offices closed in the nation's capital.
Utilities from the Carolinas to Maine reported late Sunday that a combined 14,000 customers were already without power.
The second-largest oil refinery on the East Coast, Phillips 66's 238,000 barrel per day Bayway plant in Linden, N.J., was shutting down and three other plants cut output as the storm affected operations at two-thirds of the region's plants.
As rain from the leading edges of the monster hurricane began to fall over the Northeast, hundreds of thousands of people from Maryland to Connecticut were ordered to evacuate 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 were forced to shut down for only the fourth time ever.
"We were told to get the heck out. I was going to stay, but it's better to be safe than sorry," said Hugh Phillips, who was one of the first in line when a Red Cross shelter in Lewes, Del., opened at noon.
"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.'"
Authorities warned that the nation's biggest city 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 center.
On Monday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said New York City's Brooklyn Battery and Holland Tunnels would close at 2 p.m.
Sandy was blamed for 66 deaths in the Caribbean before it began traveling northward, parallel to the Eastern Seaboard.
It was expected to hook inland during the day Monday, colliding with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.
Forecasters said Sandy was a rare, hybrid "super storm" created by an Arctic jet stream wrapping itself around a tropical storm, possibly causing up to 12 inches of rain in some areas, as well as up to 3 feet of snowfall in the Appalachian Mountains from West Virginia to Kentucky, and widespread power outages that last for days.
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Louis Uccellini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told The Associated Press that given Sandy's east-to-west track into New Jersey, the worst of the storm surge could be just to the north, in New York City, on Long Island, N.Y., and in northern New Jersey.
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Forecasters said that because of giant waves and high tides made worse by a full moon, the metropolitan area of about 20 million people could get hit with an 11-foot wall of water.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned: "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. This is a serious and dangerous storm." (Click Here to See the NYC Hurricane Evacuation Areas.)
New Jersey's famously blunt Gov. Chris Christie was less polite: "Don't be stupid. Get out."
New York called off school Monday 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.
All U.S. stock markets will be closed on Monday and possibly Tuesday, the operator of the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE Euronext, said late on Sunday, reversing an earlier plan that would have kept electronic trading going on Monday. This marks the first weather-related closure for the markets in 27 years.
Officials also postponed Monday's reopening of the Statue of Liberty, which had been closed for a year for $30 million in renovations.
President Obama also pleaded for neighborliness: "In times like this, one of the things that Americans do is we pull together and we help out one another And so, there may be elderly populations in your area. Check on your neighbor, check on your friend. Make sure that they are prepared. If we do, then we're going to get through this storm just fine."
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The storm forced the president and Republican candidate Mitt Romney to rearrange their campaign schedules in the crucial closing days of the presidential race. And early voting on Monday in Maryland and the District of Columbia was canceled.
Despite the dire warnings, some souls were refusing to budge.
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Jonas Clark of Manchester Township, N.J. — right in the area where Sandy was projected to come ashore — stood outside a convenience store, calmly sipping a coffee and wondering why people were working themselves "into a tizzy."
"I've seen a lot of major storms in my time, and there's nothing you can do but take reasonable precautions and ride out things the best you can," said Clark, 73. "Nature's going to what it's going to do. It's great that there's so much information out there about what you can do to protect yourself and your home, but it all boils down basically to 'use your common sense."'
In New Jersey, Denise Faulkner and her boyfriend showed up at the Atlantic City Convention Center with her 7-month-old daughter and two sons, ages 3 and 12, thinking there was a shelter there. She was dismayed to learn that it was just a gathering point for buses to somewhere else. Last year, they were out of their home for two days because of Hurricane Irene.
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"I'm real overwhelmed," she said as baby Zahiriah, wrapped in a pink blanket with embroidered elephants, slept in a car seat. "We're at it again. Last year we had to do it. This year we have to do it. And you have to be around all sorts of people — strangers. It's a bit much."
Before leaving their home in Atlantic City, John and Robshima Williams of packed their kids' Halloween costumes so they could go bunk-to-bunk trick-or-treating at a shelter. Her 8-year-old twins are going as the Grim Reaper and a zombie, while her 6-year-old plans to dress as a witch.
"We're just trying to make a bad situation good," the mother said. "We're going to make it fun no matter where we are."