Hurricane Sandy pounded toward land with “life-threatening” wind and waves, grounding almost 6,000 flights, forcing a halt to New York City area transit and prompting evacuations.
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. Residents of parts of the New Jersey shore were also ordered to leave home.
Sandy’s punch may be felt from Virginia to Massachusetts, said Rick Knabb, the National Hurricane Center’s director. High wind warnings and watches 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’s maximum sustained winds remained unchanged at 75 miles (120 kilometers) per hour, the hurricane center said today in an advisory at 1 p.m. New York time. It was centered about 270 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and about 575 miles south of New York, moving northeast at 14 mph.
Hurricane-strength winds of at least 74 mph extend 175 from Sandy’s core and tropical storm force reach 520 miles, according to the hurricane center. The storm is the second-largest since 1988, tied with Hurricane Lili in 1996, according to Angela Fritz at Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The largest was Hurricane Olga in 2001.
Sandy is expected to hook into the U.S. East Coast 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.
In all, 50 million to 60 million people may be affected by the storm, Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said yesterday.
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 states from Virginia to Massachusetts valued at almost $88 billion are at risk for storm surge damage.
At least 5,894 flights have been canceled through Oct. 30 as airlines reposition planes and crews, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based tracking company. Amtrak canceled most of its service in the Northeast starting at 7 p.m.
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. Port Authority Trans-Hudson trains will close at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 29.
New York City’s schools will be closed tomorrow, Bloomberg said. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP. New York electric utility Consolidated Edison Inc. will shut off underground power lines and transformers threatened by flooding, said Allen Drury, a company spokesman.
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, Uccellini 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.”
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.
“I think was really is standing out for me is it is a huge footprint,” said Mark Hoekzema, chief meteorologist at Earth Networks in Germantown, Maryland. “What is impressive is that I have not seen a storm that will create the durations, frequency and intensity of wind over this amount of time.”
The storm is expected to have near-hurricane-force winds as it approaches the mid-Atlantic coast tomorrow night, the Miami-based center said.
Sandy may dump as much as 12 inches of rain on parts of the Northeast, the agency said. The damage will be spread across a wider area than that left by a typical hurricane, according to Franklin.
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.”
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.
Wal-Mart is “seeing a lot of panic buying in the Northeast,” Dianna Gee, a spokeswoman for the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company, said by telephone. “The number one item people are coming for, and we are trying to restock as quickly as possible, is water.”
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 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.
The lunar high tides, along with ocean driven waves, may add about two feet to those estimates.
In a worst-case scenario, New York City may have a 10-foot surge, Kines said.
The hurricane center predicts as much as 3 feet of snow may fall in West Virginia and as much as 2 feet in the mountains of Virginia to Kentucky. As much as 12 to 18 inches may fall in the Appalachians in North Carolina and Tennessee.
The hurricane center’s five-day outlook 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.
The hurricane center’s web page no longer shows coastal storm watches and warnings on its tracking maps. Knabb said the agency decided to rely on regular weather watches and warnings, as opposed to hurricane advisories, to avoid confusion after the storm transitions into a more typical nor’easter.