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East Coast on edge as 'historic' Sandy whirls offshore

11:44 PM, Oct 27, 2012   |    comments
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Hurricane Sandy has one-sixth of the nation on edge.

As 50 million people in the storm's path await the outcome, Sandy is making its way slowly along the Eastern Seaboard from the sea off North Carolina.

Evacuations are being considered in low-lying areas. In southeast Wilmington, Del., 3,000 residents are under an order to leave by noon Sunday. Mayor James Baker said the area could get higher-than-normal water levels that may threaten safety.

In Delaware City, school buses are lined up and ready to be called into action.

Officials issued a mandatory evacuation for New York's Fire Island. About 200 permanent residents of the summer haven have until 2 p.m. Sunday to leave the island that officials say is prone to flooding. "It's a thin strip of land and it borders two sides of water," says Inez Birbiglia, spokeswoman person for the Town of Islip, which has partial jurisdiction over the area. "They need to evacuate so that resources during the emergency can be allocated to other needy places on the mainland."

Sandy took a short breather early today and weakened into a tropical storm, but only for a couple of hours before it roared back to hurricane status.

It is expected to push heavy rains into most of the region by Monday. The storm's center is likely to make landfall somewhere along the New Jersey or Delaware coast late Monday, according to computer forecasting models.

In Rehoboth Beach, Del., city workers are on the beach, removing benches, trash cans and anything else that could become a dangerous missile.

The storm's winds, rains and potential snow could cause widespread havoc. Weather forecasters predict up to 10 inches of rain in some regions, snowstorms in others and widespread wind damage that could down power lines.

As of 8 p.m., the center of Hurricane Sandy was about 335 miles southeast of Charleston, S.C., and 330 miles south of Cape Hatteras, N.C., according to the National Hurricane Center. It remained a Category 1 hurricane with a wind speed of 75 mph and is moving to the northeast at about 13 mph.

High-wind watches and warnings are in effect for all the Mid-Atlantic states and southern New England.

AccuWeather is reporting that Hurricane Sandy remains on track to become a historical storm, with places from Norfolk, Va., to Washington, D.C., to Boston bracing for catastrophic impacts. The worst is forecast to be Monday through Tuesday.

If Sandy hits near New York City, as one weather model predicts, the storm surge will be capable of overtopping the flood walls in Manhattan, which are only 5 feet above mean sea level, according to Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters.

Storm surge is the massive mound of water that builds up and is pushed ashore as a hurricane moves over the ocean. Sandy's storm surge may be higher than Hurricane Irene's, Masters said, and has the potential to flood New York City's subway system.

The storm's landfall along the Mid-Atlantic coast "would likely be a billion-dollar disaster," Masters says. He also noted that the full moon will occur Monday, which means astronomical tides will be at their peak for the month, increasing potential storm surge flooding.

The American Red Cross is readying shelters, volunteers and supplies to help coastal areas from Virginia to New England. "We want to make sure we're ready to spring into action as soon as we're needed," spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego says.

The Red Cross has been shipping blood to hospitals in the affected region.

Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have declared states of emegency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent incident management teams to Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont to help local emergency managers prepare for the storm and its aftermath. The agency also sent liaison officers to emergency operations centers in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. The Defense Department has sent officers to deploy with the FEMA teams to coordinate possible search-and-rescue missions.

"This is a big storm with potential impacts beyond coastal areas. Know your risks, have a plan and be prepared," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says. "Now is the time to update your family communication plans, check your supplies, and stay informed."

FEMA has stockpiled supplies, including generators, blankets, water and food, throughout the Eastern Seaboard and at military bases in the region, including Fort Dix in New Jersey.

National Guard soldiers have been mobilized in several states, including North Carolina, Virginia, and Connecticut.

In North Carolina, 75 members of the National Guard have been positioned around the state to provide emergency relief if needed, says Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for North Carolina Emergency Management.

Soldiers in Raleigh, Tarboro, and Washington, N.C., may be called to hand out supplies, perform rescue missions or help with general operations.

National Guard soldiers and state troopers are taking pre-storm positions in Virginia. Contractors, including those who remove debris, have also been readied.

"We're about as ready as we're going to be able to be," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell says. "Our biggest concern remains that this will be a storm of lengthy duration."

The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., has canceled Monday classes but promises students that food service will be operating no matter what.

"Sandy could pose an enormous threat to major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, like New York City and Long Island, Atlantic City and Baltimore," says Howard Botts, vice president of CoreLogic, a research and consulting firm based in Santa Ana, Calif.

AccuWeather meteorologist Tom Kines says winds could have the biggest impact, causing widespread power outages. "You've got to be concerned since it's an area with such a large population," Kines says.

Storm surge remains one of the biggest threats from the storm: Data from CoreLogic shows that more than 261,000 homes valued at more than $80 billion are at risk from potential storm-surge damage in the coastal Mid-Atlantic states, assuming the storm hits the coast as a Category 1 hurricane.

"This will be a long-lasting event, with two to three days of impact," says James Franklin, branch chief of the National Hurricane Center. "Wind damage, widespread power outages, inland flooding and storm surge are all likely."

Sandy is gearing up for an assault from South Carolina to New England. Weather forecasters say the storm is likely to run into a cold front approaching from the Midwest, which could dump up to 2 feet of snow in parts of West Virginia and Virginia.

In the final weeks before the U.S. presidential election Nov. 6, the storm was presenting a challenge to the campaigns of President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Romney cancelled a rally scheduled for Sunday evening in Virginia Beach, Va., and President Obama's re-election campaign announced that Vice President Joe Biden had also cancelled a Saturday trip to Virginia Beach.

The storm could also affect voting.

Absentee voters lined up by the hundreds in Virginia on Friday to cast their ballots, some motivated by the fear that Tropical Storm Sandy may make it more difficult to get to a polling place.

"I think it ( the storm) just encouraged me to go ahead and turn up and vote rather than wait until later," voter Tania Sebastian says.

Early voting in Maryland and Washington, D.C., is underway, and some voters have found long lines.

Delaware was bracing for a threat rivaling the March 1962 nor'easter that has stood as the state's worst storm. Collin O'Mara, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, says Sandy could unleash record waves and tidal flooding along the coast."The potential on this is greater than the defenses that we have in most places," O'Mara says. "We're taking this as an extremely significant problem, probably the most significant we've seen in decades."

Insurer Allstate is expanding efforts to prepare, spokeswoman April Eaton says."We are currently rolling our catastrophe personnel, mobile claim centers and catastrophe response vehicles to Raleigh, N.C., for staging," she says. "Staging allows us to get our national catastrophe team members and units positioned in a safe place, but close to areas that may be impacted by Sandy.

"Once we see where the hurricane makes landfall, and authorities allow us in, we're able to move from the staging area or holding pattern and go into the heavily damaged communities to help Allstate customers begin the claim process."

Eaton says Allstate will send nine mobile claim centers to Raleigh, N.C., and Allentown, Pa.

The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm warning as far north in Florida as St. Augustine and parts of North and South Carolina.

Pepco, the electric company that provides service to Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland, has activated emergency teams and begun scheduling workers who might have to assess damage, restore power and coordinate with other power companies in the region, spokesman Marcus Beal says.

"We're already making plans and working as if this is a definite event," he says.

In New Jersey, officials told people to be prepared for several days without electricity. Today Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency. Jersey Shore beach towns began issuing voluntary evacuations and protecting boardwalks. Atlantic City 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.

Workers at the Francis Asbury Manor assisted-living facility in Neptune Township are helping about 110 residents prepare for an evacuation at 10 a.m. Sunday. Most will be bused to a sister facility in Newton, says Jan Carrato, a spokeswoman for United Methodist Homes, which operates both facilities. Some will go to nursing homes inland and some will stary with relatives.

New York City began precautions for an ominous but still uncertain forecast. No decision has been made on whether any of the city's public transportation outlets would be shut, despite predictions that a sudden shift of the storm's path could cause a surge of 3 to 6 feet in the subways.

"We want to make sure we are connecting with everybody and that we will have a game plan in place if the storm requires us to respond," says Paul Shipman, a spokesman for the American Red Cross in Connecticut and Rhode Island. He added that volunteers have been called to be on alert.

Shipman encouraged iPhone and Android users to download the Red Cross' Hurricane app.

At least 43 deaths in Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti were in Sandy's wake, including a 4-month-old Cuban boy crushed when his home collapsed.

Opinions vary on the amount of damage the storm could cause. Mike Smith of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions is expecting the worst.

"I expect the total damage (including loss to the U.S. economy) to be worse than Katrina," he says.

What's creating this monster? A combination of Hurricane Sandy and another storm over the eastern USA, writes meteorologist James Cisco of the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center in an online report.

The winds from Sandy, Cisco writes, will be "incorporated into a hybrid vortex over the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast next Tuesday." This "unusual merger ... should settle back toward the interior Northeast through Halloween, inviting perhaps a ghoulish nickname for the cyclone along the lines of 'Frankenstorm,' an allusion to Mary Shelley's gothic creature of synthesized elements."

Contributing: David Jackson; Gary Strauss; Jeff Montgomery, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal; Florida Today; WUSA 9; Associated Press.

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