NEW YORK (AP)—Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Eastern Seaboard's largest cities Monday, forcing the shutdown of mass transit, schools and financial markets, sending coastal residents fleeing, and threatening a dangerous mix of high winds, soaking rain, and a surging wall of water up to 11 feet tall.
Sandy strengthened before dawn and stayed on a predicted path toward Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York—putting it on a collision course with two other weather systems that would create a superstorm with the potential for havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. About 2 to 3 feet of snow were even forecast for mountainous parts of West Virginia.
The tempest could endanger up to 50 million people for days.
"This is the worst-case scenario," said Louis Uccellini, environmental prediction chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Many workers planned to stay home Monday as subways, buses, and trains shut down across the region under the threat of flooding that could inundate tracks and tunnels. Airports also closed, with thousands of flights canceled, and authorities warned that the time for evacuation was running out or already past. Utilities brought in extra crews, anticipating widespread power failures.
The center of the storm was positioned to come ashore Monday night in New Jersey, meaning the worst of the surge could be in the northern part of that state and in New York City and on Long Island. Higher tides brought by a full moon compounded the threat to the metropolitan area of about 20 million people.
Canals around Long Island's Great South Bay area were bulging two hours before high tide. Water was about a foot deep on some streets in Lindenhurst, N.Y., by 7 a.m. Monday.
As rain from the leading edges began to fall over the Northeast on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people from Maryland to Connecticut were ordered to leave low-lying coastal areas, including 375,000 in lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City, 50,000 in Delaware, and 30,000 in Atlantic City, N.J., where the city's 12 casinos shut down for only the fourth time ever.
"I think this one's going to do us in," said Mark Palazzolo, who boarded up his bait-and-tackle shop in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., with the same wood he used in past storms, crossing out the names of Hurricanes Isaac and Irene and spray-painting "Sandy" next to them. "I got a call from a friend of mine from Florida last night who said, `Mark, get out! If it's not the storm, it'll be the aftermath. People are going to be fighting in the streets over gasoline and food.'"
President Barack Obama declared emergencies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, authorizing federal relief work to begin well ahead of time. He promised the government would "respond big and respond fast" after the storm hits.
"My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape," Obama said. "We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules."
Authorities warned that New York could get hit with a surge of seawater that could swamp parts of lower Manhattan, flood subway tunnels, and cripple the network of electrical and communications lines that are vital to the nation's financial center.
Major U.S. financial markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, and CME Group in Chicago, planned a rare shutdown Monday. The NYSE closed on Sept. 27, 1985, for Hurricane Gloria. The United Nations also shut down and canceled all meetings at its New York headquarters.
New York called off school Monday for the city's 1.1 million students and announced it would suspend all train, bus, and subway service Sunday night. More than 5 million riders a day depend on the transit system.
"If you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you," Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned. "This is a serious and dangerous storm."
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was typically blunt: "Don't be stupid. Get out."