Hurricane Sandy, the monster storm bearing down on the US East Coast, strengthened yesterday after hundreds of thousands moved to higher ground, public transport shut down and the US stock market suffered its first weather-related closure in 27 years.
About 50 million people from the Mid-Atlantic to Canada were in the path of the nearly 1,600km wide storm, which forecasters said could be the largest to hit the mainland in the US’ history. It was expected to topple trees, damage buildings, cause power outages and trigger heavy flooding.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) yesterday said the Category 1 storm had strengthened as it turned toward the coast and was moving at 32kph. It was expected to bring a “life threatening storm surge,” coastal hurricane winds and heavy snow in the Appalachian Mountains, the NHC said.
Nine US states have declared states of emergency and with the US election eight days away, US President Barack Obama canceled a campaign event in Florida in order to return to Washington and monitor the US government’s response to the storm.
“This is a serious and big storm,” Obama said on Sunday after a briefing at the federal government’s storm response center in Washington. “We don’t yet know where it’s going to hit, where we’re going to see the biggest impacts.”
Despite the drawback of canceling events roughly a week before election day, the storm gives Obama an opportunity to appear presidential in the middle of a natural disaster.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney also canceled campaign events as a result of the storm.
Sandy killed 66 people in the Caribbean last week before pounding US coastal areas with rain and triggering snow falls at higher elevations as it moved north.
Forecasting services indicated early yesterday the center of the storm would strike the New Jersey shore near Atlantic City at night.
While Sandy does not pack the punch of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, it could become more potent as it approaches the US coast. Winds were at a maximum of 140kph, the NHC said, up from 120kph six hours earlier. It said tropical storm-force winds reached as far as 780km from the center.
All US stock markets were closed yesterday and will possibly remain so today, the New York Stock Exchange operator said late on Sunday. The UN, Broadway theaters, New Jersey casinos, schools up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and myriad corporate events were also being shut down.
Officials ordered people in coastal towns and low-lying areas to evacuate, often telling them they would put emergency workers’ lives at risk if they stayed.
“Don’t be stupid, get out, and go to higher, safer ground,” New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told a news conference.
Forecasters said Sandy was a rare, hybrid “super storm” created by an Arctic jet stream wrapping itself around a tropical storm, possibly causing up to 30cm of rain in some areas, as well as up to 1m of snowfall in the Appalachian Mountains.
At 8am, the NHC said Sandy was centered about 425 km southeast of Atlantic City and about 500km of New York City.
Worried residents in the hurricane’s path packed stores, searching for generators, flashlights, batteries, food and other supplies in anticipation of power outages. Nearly 284,000 residential properties valued at US$88 billion are at risk for damage, risk analysts at CoreLogic said.
Transportation systems shut down in anticipation. Airlines canceled flights, bridges and tunnels closed, and national passenger rail operator Amtrak suspended nearly all services on the east coast.
Utilities from the Carolinas to Maine reported late on Sunday that a combined 14,000 customers were already without power.