Hurricane Sandy pounded toward land with “life-threatening” storm surge, wind and rain, grounding 3,200 flights, forcing a halt to New York City area transit and prompting evacuations in New York and New Jersey.
The system, which killed as many as 65 people in the Caribbean on its path north, may be powerful enough to cause $18 billion in damage when it barrels into New Jersey tomorrow and might knock out power to millions for a week or more, according to forecasters and risk experts.
“We want to emphasize that the time for preparing and talking is about over now,” said Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Whether Sandy hits as a hurricane or just a large storm, “it is going to produce very high, potentially life-threatening, storm surge. It may require additional evacuations today.”
The threat of that water coming onto shore prompted New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to call for the evacuation of low- lying areas including Battery Park City, Coney Island, City Island and the Rockaways, affecting about 375,000 people. It’s only the second evacuation in the city’s history, after the precaution taken for last year’s Irene.
Sandy’s punch may be felt from Virginia to Massachusetts, said Rick Knabb, the National Hurricane Center’s director. High wind warnings and watches, calling for gusts as strong as 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour, stretch from Maine to North Carolina and as far west as Ohio, according to the National Weather Service. Flood watches and warnings cover most of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic coasts.
“I hope people realize how bad this can be,” said Tom Kines, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. Even if Sandy loses its hurricane status, “people have to realize that the damage is going to be just as bad whether it is a hurricane or not. If it isn’t a hurricane, they shouldn’t put their guard down.”
Sandy is expected to hook into the U.S. East Coast somewhere in southern New Jersey early Oct. 30, sending a 6- to 10 foot (1.8- to 3-meter) storm surge into the coast as far north as New York City and spreading wind gusts up to 80 miles per hour throughout the Northeast as well, Kines said.
The potential damage may range from $15 billion to $18 billion, said Charles Watson, director of research and development at Kinetic Analysis Corp., a hazard analysis firm in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“Since Sandy will be hitting during the workweek, there will be much greater secondary effects due to business interruption, power outages,” Watson said in an e-mail interview.
CoreLogic Inc., which tracks real-estate information, said about 284,000 homes in seven U.S. states from Virginia to Massachusetts valued at almost $88 billion are at risk for possible storm surge damage.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to stop running New York City subways, buses and trains at 7 p.m. The transit system is the largest in the U.S., serving 8.5 million riders daily.
New York City’s schools will be closed tomorrow, Bloomberg said. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The system crossed Jamaica Oct. 24 and Cuba on Oct. 25, then tracked north across the central Bahamas. Most of the deaths in the Caribbean were in Haiti, still recovering from a devastating 2010 earthquake, the Associated Press reported.
Sandy is taking its unusual track into the East Coast because a number of weather systems have come together in just the right way, Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said last week.
Hurricanes don’t really move on their own and depend on other systems to pull or push them on their paths, Kines said.
To Sandy’s east, a phenomenon called the North Atlantic Oscillation is acting like a closed door, barring the storm from moving in that direction. To the west, a cold front and another storm are creating a pattern that will pull Sandy toward them as it evolves into the superstorm some in the Weather Service have dubbed “Frankenstorm.”
“There is going to be a lot of rain and wind damage,” Dan Pydynowski, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., said in a telephone interview. “This is going to be a much larger, more widespread storm than Hurricane Irene.”
National Guard troops were put on alert in New York and other East Coast states to assist with the storm impact.
“Because of the large size of the system and the slow motion, it’s going to be a long-lasting event, two to three days of impacts for a lot of people,” said James Franklin, branch chief at the hurricane center in Miami. “The kinds of things we are looking at ultimately would be wind damage, widespread power outages, heavy rainfall, inland flooding, and again, somebody is going to get a significant surge event out of this.”
Uccellini said Sandy’s winds will be felt as far from the coast as Ohio and Michigan, and the system could be comparable to 1991’s so-called perfect storm. That nor’easter eventually formed Hurricane Grace, and was chronicled in the best-selling book, “The Perfect Storm,” by Sebastian Junger.
Sandy’s maximum sustained winds remained unchanged at 75 miles (120 kilometers) per hour, the hurricane center said today in an advisory at 11 a.m. New York time. It was centered about 250 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and about 575 miles south of New York, moving northeast at 14 mph.
The storm is expected to have near-hurricane-force winds as it approaches the mid-Atlantic coast tomorrow night, the Miami- based center said.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered that the state’s barrier islands and casinos in Atlantic City be evacuated by 4 p.m. today. The governor asked residents to pay heed to the warnings and “be prepared for the worst here.”
More than 700 flights were canceled in the U.S. today and 2,500 tomorrow, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based tracking company.
The storm may dump as much as 12 inches of rain on parts of the Northeast, the hurricane center said. The damage will be spread across a wider area than that left by a typical hurricane, the NHC’s Franklin said.
Kroger Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. stocked their shelves with supplies. New York City hardware stores papered windows with signs urging passers-by to be prepared.
Franklin said the storm surge, in which ocean water is pushed ashore, will hit a larger area than Irene. The storm also will be striking two days after the full moon, when tides are at their highest.
“The lunar tides, this is a dangerous period,” Uccellini said. “And with the slow movement of the storm you can go through two or three tidal cycles, which also contributes to the potential impact of this event.”
The National Hurricane Center said water may rise as much as 8 feet above ground with the storm surge from Ocean City, Maryland, to the Connecticut/Rhode Island line and in Long Island Sound and Raritan Bay.
In a worst-case scenario, New York City may have a 10-foot surge, Kines said.
Uccellini said there is also the potential for at least 12 inches of snow in West Virginia and lesser amounts in Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.
The hurricane center’s five-day prediction shows the system turning north over Pennsylvania at tropical-storm strength before weakening as it crosses into New York State, over Lake Ontario and into Canada.
Power may be out as long as 10 days in some areas, according to a statement from the Edison Electric Institute, an industry trade group in Washington.
--With assistance from Tony Capaccio and William Selway in Washington, Freeman Klopott in Albany , Jim Polson, Henry Goldman and Steve Payne in New York, Lynn Doan in San Francisco, Yee Kai Pin and Alexander Kwiatkowski in Singapore, Julie Johnsson in Chicago, Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas, Jef Feeley in Wilmington, Delaware, James Paton in Sydney, Terrence Dopp in Trenton and Heather Langan in London. Editor: Charlotte Porter