DUCK, N.C. – A year after being walloped by Hurricane Irene, residents rushed to put away boats, harvest crops and sandbag boardwalks Friday as the Eastern Seaboard braced for a rare megastorm that experts said would cause much greater havoc.
Hurricane Sandy, moving north from the Caribbean, was expected to make landfall Monday night near the Delaware coast, then run into two winter weather systems as it moves inland, creating a hybrid monster storm that could bring nearly a foot of rain, high winds and up to 2 feet of snow. Experts said the storm would be wider and stronger than Irene, which caused more than $15 billion in damage, and could rival the worst East Coast storm on record.
Officials did not mince words, telling people to be prepared for several days without electricity. Jersey Shore beach towns began issuing voluntary evacuations and protecting boardwalks. Atlantic Beach casinos made contingency plans to close, and officials advised residents of flood-prone areas to stay with family or be ready to leave. Airlines said to expect cancellations and waived change fees for passengers who want to reschedule.
“Be forewarned,” said Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “Assume that you will be in the midst of flooding conditions, the likes of which you may not have seen at any of the major storms that have occurred over the last 30 years.”
Many storm-seasoned residents had not begun to panic. Along North Carolina’s fragile Outer Banks, no evacuations had been ordered, and ferries hadn’t yet been closed. Plenty of stores remained open, and houses still had Halloween decorations outside, as rain started to roll in.
“I’ll never evacuate again,” said Lori Hilby, manager of a natural foods market in Duck, N.C., who left her home before Hurricane Irene struck in August 2011. “... Whenever I evacuate, I always end up somewhere and they lose power and my house is fine. So I’m always wishing I was home.”
Farther north, residents were making more cautious preparations. Patrick and Heather Peters pulled into their driveway in Bloomsburg, Pa., with a kerosene heater, 12 gallons of water, paper plates, batteries, flashlights and the last lantern on Walmart’s shelf. They’ve also rented a U-Haul in case the forecast gets worse over the weekend.
“I’m not screwing around this time,” said Heather Peters, whose town was devastated last year by flooding following Irene.
At a Home Depot in Freeport, N.Y., on Long Island, Bob Notheis bought sawhorses to put his furniture on inside his home. “I’m just worried about how bad it’s going to be with the tidal surge,” he said. “Irene was kind of rough on me, and I’m just trying to prepare.”
The storm threatened to hit nearly a week before Election Day as several states were heavily involved in campaigning, canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Vice President Biden both canceled weekend campaign events in coastal Virginia Beach, Va., though their events in other parts of the states were going on as planned.
After Irene left millions without power, utility companies were taking no chances and were lining up extra crews and tree-trimmers. High winds 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.
In upstate New York, Richard Ball was plucking carrots, potatoes, beets and other crops from the ground as quickly as possible. Ball was still shaky from Irene, which scoured away soil, ruined crops and killed livestock last year.
Farmers were moving tractors and other equipment to high ground, and some families pondered moving furniture to upper stories in their homes.
“The fear we have a similar recipe to Irene has really intensified anxieties in town,” Ball said Friday.
Sandy has killed at least 43 people in the Caribbean, and just left the Bahamas on Friday. Residents from Florida to North Carolina will experience peripheral impacts from the hurricane through the weekend.
As Sandy turns back to the north and northwest and merges with colder air from a winter system, West Virginia along with eastern Ohio and southern Pennsylvania are expected to get snow. Up to 2 feet of snow should fall on West Virginia, with lighter snow in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. A wide swath of the East, Coast, measuring several hundreds of miles, will get persistent gale-force winds measuring up to 50 miles per hour, with some areas closer to the storm landfall on the Delaware shore getting closer to 70 mph, said James Franklin, forecast chief for the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
“It’s going to be a long-lasting event, two to three days of impact for a lot of people,” Franklin said. “Wind damage, widespread power outages, heavy rainfall, inland flooding and somebody is going to get a significant surge event.”
The Delaware shore is expected to get 10 inches of rain and extreme storm surges, said Louis Uccellini, environmental prediction director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Irene was a minimal hurricane that caused widespread damage as it moved north along the coast after making landfall in North Carolina. With catastrophic inland flooding in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont, federal officials say Irene caused $15.8 billion in damage.
Sandy is “looking like a very serious storm that could be historic,” said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the forecasting service Weather Underground. “Mother Nature is not saying, ‘Trick or treat.’ It’s just going to give tricks.”
Some have compared the tempest to the so-called Perfect Storm that struck off the coast of New England in 1991, but that one hit a less populated area.
Masters 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.
If the storm hits farther north than forecast and comes in closer to Long Island, which is still well within the National Hurricane Center’s cone of uncertainty for where the storm can come ashore, storm surge in the New York City area could be 3 to 6 feet, which might be enough to put water into the New York City subway system, Masters said. Last year, Irene missed doing that by only eight inches, he said.
If the storm hits farther south, closer to Washington D.C., those areas could be doused with extreme storm surge and rain.
“You’re preparing for the worst and praying for the best, and whatever God can do to keep it from whacking [us any harder than it might], we’d appreciate it,” said Kevin Boyle, administrator of the borough of Pompton Lakes, N.J.
The approaching storm led New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to declare a state of emergency for all counties in the state, a move that included putting the state’s National Guard contingents on alert and ready to mobilize and assist other state and local agencies depending on where the storm might hit. Water levels at major reservoirs hit during Hurricane Irene in the eastern part of the state were already being lowered on Friday.
“We want to make sure we’re ready, just in case,” Cuomo told reporters on Long Island Friday.
The storm forced Cuomo to cancel a planned summit of hundreds of the state’s first responders on Monday in Albany “because they should be in their home county preparing for their emergency.” And he put off a trip he was going to make this week campaigning for President Obama in Florida.
Tom Precious of The News Albany Bureau contributed to this story.