SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. – Forget distinctions like tropical storm or hurricane. Dont 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.
Were 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 didnt 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 Yorks 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. 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 today, to Connecticut declared states of emergency. Delaware ordered mandatory evacuations for coastal communities.
New Jerseys 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 on Friday to return home.
I can be as cynical as anyone, the pugnacious chief executive said Saturday. But when the storm comes, if its as bad as theyre predicting, youre going to wish you werent as cynical as you otherwise might have been.
The storm forced the presidential campaign to juggle schedules: Mitt Romney scrapped plans to campaign today in 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 up his departure for Florida to tonight to beat the storm.
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 didnt need to be forced.
You know how many times they tell you, This is it, its really coming and its really the big one and then it turns out not to be? Alice Stockton-Rossi said. Im afraid people will tune it out because of all the false alarms before, and the one time you need to take it seriously, you wont. 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.
Ive 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.
Jeff Masters, director of the private service Weather Underground, 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.
Experts said to expect high winds over an 800-mile area and up to 2 feet of snow as far inland as West Virginia.
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.
Were facing a very real possibility of widespread, prolonged power outages, said Ruth Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.