(MCT) — ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Hundreds of thousands of people were told to flee low-lying areas, New York and Washington shut down their subways, federal offices and local schools closed, and presidential candidates curtailed their campaigning as Hurricane Sandy roared ever closer to the Eastern Seaboard on Sunday, promising epic storm surges, howling winds and drenching rain across much of the Mid-Atlantic region and Northeast.
Facing the fury of a storm system nearly 1,000 miles wide, at least five states declared emergencies. Airlines canceled more than 7,000 flights, and anxious families and businesses from North Carolina to Maine were warned to expect power blackouts lasting days or longer once the storm makes landfall, probably late Monday night. More than 450,000 people were ordered to evacuate.
With high tides driven by a full moon, forecasters warned of devastating waves and tidal surges 6 to 11 feet above normal that could trigger flash floods and treacherous conditions from New Jersey to southern New England. As far west as Chicago, the National Weather Service cautioned that Lake Michigan’s waves could reach 16 to 22 feet — about four times normal.
“This is a once in a lifetime storm,” said Tom Kines, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather. The damage “is going to be phenomenal.”
The storm — which was expected to get even worse once it slammed into two other weather systems — churned northwest in the Atlantic and appeared likely to slam ashore with winds at or near hurricane force in southern New Jersey. But unlike most hurricanes, the eye of this monster wasn’t the focal point.
“The winds are spread out over a huge area,” said Todd Kimberlain, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Strong winds “are going to extend all the way up into Boston.”
Hurricane force winds were expected to whip parts of the coastline between Chincoteague, Va., and Chatham, Mass., the weather service said — a distance of 540 miles. Heavy snows were expected when Sandy collided with a cold front.
As federal and state officials scrambled to open shelters and position emergency supplies, President Barack Obama joined a conference call with governors of Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, as well as mayors of several major cities.
Obama promised to “cut through red tape” to help states respond. “We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules,” he said.
The president warned that the storm’s creeping pace could worsen destruction and hinder cleanup. “It is important for us to respond big and to respond fast,” he said after a meeting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney canceled plans to campaign in Virginia and scrubbed events in New Hampshire — both among swing states where the race to Nov. 6 has been hottest.
Both campaigns also said they would stop soliciting funds in storm-affected states. In some areas, campaign workers began collecting and delivering supplies to emergency centers.
“I know that right now some people in the country are a little nervous about a storm about to hit the coast,” Romney told about 2,000 supporters at a rally in Findlay, Ohio. “And our thoughts and prayers are with the people who will find themselves in harm’s way.”
Several candidates urged supporters in threatened areas to remove campaign signs. “The last thing we want is for yard signs to become projectiles,” said Tim Kaine, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia.
In Maryland, where voters casting early ballots formed lines three or four blocks long Sunday under pewter-gray skies, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley announced he would halt early voting on Monday to keep voters out of danger. The state is considered a sure win for Obama.
But Sandy’s impact on Democratic and Republican get-out-the-vote efforts in closely contested battlegrounds such as North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire was less clear. A large turnout generally benefits Democrats.
With millions of people at risk of losing power, utility companies rushed in reinforcement crews and equipment from as far away as New Mexico. Some areas could get a foot of rain over several days, and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic region was likely to get 4 to 8 inches.
Officials warned that the combination of downed trees, flooding, fallen power lines and other dangers were a lethal mix. Hurricane Sandy left about 60 people dead in the Caribbean last week before heading north.
Not even Halloween was safe.
“To have to cancel is a little bit heartbreaking,” Nicole Purmal said Sunday as workers dismantled rides and game stalls at Luna Park, where the “Night of Horrors” was called off. “You just don’t want to take the risk,” said Purmal, marketing manager at Coney Island, 15 miles from Midtown Manhattan.
City workers patrolled the wind-whipped Coney Island boardwalk and shouted at gawkers to go home. But wave watchers appeared mesmerized as they awaited a storm whose size, trajectory and timing have created a meteorological wonder.
Others listened to the mounting warnings.
“I just want to get out of here,” said Bill Kilcup as he stopped for coffee on the Jersey shore before getting back into the slow stream of cars heading away from Atlantic City. “Right now we just want to get as far west as we can.”
New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered about 375,000 residents of low-lying coastal areas to evacuate. About 50,000 in Delaware and 30,000 in Atlantic City also were told to evacuate, The Associated Press reported. Some coastal towns in Maryland also were to be evacuated.
The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq will close Monday and perhaps Tuesday. All Broadway and off-Broadway shows were canceled Sunday evening and Monday.
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie ordered Atlantic City’s casinos closed and barrier islands evacuated from Cape May in the south to Sandy Hook in the north, and he urged residents in low-lying areas to heed warnings from emergency officials.
“How about if we go by this rule? Anything that looks stupid, is stupid,” Christie told a news conference.
The nightmare prospect for the barrier islands is a storm surge so high that ocean waves meet the bay on the inland side, swamping the islands.
Emergency shelters began filling up Sunday as waves pounded the piers and beaches on the New Jersey coast and in some cases caused early flooding. About 300 people took refuge in Pleasantville High School, where the Red Cross set up cots in a gym.
“We woke up flooded — up to my waist,” said Mary Hakes of Absecon, a coastal town. “We left everything we own back there.”
Airlines canceled more than 1,200 flights Sunday, 5,500 for Monday and about 700 for Tuesday. Many involved flights to or from the New York City area, and the number was expected to grow. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the city’s vast network of subways, buses and regional rail systems shut down Sunday night.
Washington’s Metrorail system also will close Monday. Amtrak canceled its Northeast Corridor train service.
“This storm is unique, large, dangerous and unlike anything our region has experienced in a very long time,” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray told a news conference.
Many residents stocked up on sandbags, batteries, water and food, leaving supermarket shelves bare. Long lines formed at gas stations and stores selling generators.
“There’s definitely an air of frantic tension,” said Sandra Nicholas, a manager at the Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, as she and other employees stacked sandbags outside the waterfront business.
Earlier in the day, Nicholas managed to nab the last available $1,000 generator at a busy hardware store. Police escorted her and her precious item to her car.
(Susman reported from New York, Tanfani from Atlantic City and Simon from Washington. Carolyn Cole in New York; Lisa Mascaro, Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons in Washington; Seema Mehta in Celina, Ohio; Mitch Smith in Chicago; and Maeve Reston and Chad Terhune in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)