Hurricane Sandy chugged toward the East Coast on Sunday with such enormous size and force that public officials warned of the potential for widespread destruction and disruption for millions of people in its path.
From North Carolina to coastal Maine, public officials urged residents to fortify themselves against an unusually dangerous storm system expected to unleash torrential rains and damaging winds of up to 75 mph as far as 175 miles from the storm’s center. The National Hurricane Center forecast storm surges of as much as 11 feet in some coastal areas.
As the storm’s leading edge approached the Mid-Atlantic region, its effect was already being felt. The federal government announced a shutdown on Monday, saying that only emergency employees and those required to telework would be on duty.
Metro will close too, with all rail and bus service cancelled. Maryland and the District closed all government offices; both jurisdictions also suspended early voting. Several school districts called off classes on Monday, with Montgomery and Fairfax counties cancelling school through Tuesday.
“This is a serious, killer storm,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) said in an afternoon news conference. He urged residents to hunker down and prepare for what he and other officials expect to be extended days of power outages.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said the approaching storm was unlike any storm he had seen in 20 years.
Local residents boarded up windows and lined up to grab sandbags. Small areas of flooding had begun on Sunday in the Hampton Roads area and the beach at Virginia Beach was already covered in water. Late Sunday, Dominion Virginia Power reported that 3,000 customers had lost power in the Hampton Roads area.
“This is going to be a long haul,” McDonnell said. “People are going to have to be patient.”
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered schools and public transportation systems closed, and a mandatory evacuation of more than 350,000 people residents in low-lying areas such as Manhattan’s Battery Park, the South Bronx, sections of Coney Island and Staten Island.
The city also closed its massive subway system at 7 p.m. Sunday, effectively bringing the nation’s largest city to a near halt, and canceled public school classes on Monday.
Airlines cancelled scores of flights to and from Ronald Reagan National and Dulles International airports. And Amtrak halted most service in the northeast for Monday, shutting down the rail line between Washington and New York.
After meeting with federal emergency officials in Washington on Sunday and talking with elected officials in East Coast cities and states, President Obama called the hurricane a “serious and big storm” and said “we have to take this seriously.”
By Sunday morning, officials in Haiti said the storm was responsible for 65 deaths, as Sandy blew through the Bahamas and traveled north over the Atlantic Ocean, several hundred miles southeast of Charleston, S.C.
Two computer tracking systems remained in agreement that the hurricane would arrive on shore between the Delmarva Peninsula and Rhode Island. But Sandy’s reach will extend as far as 450 miles from its core, which prompted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to order evacuations of coastal areas and the state’s casinos.
The impending storm disrupted the rhythms of an otherwise warm fall weekend, as utility crews up and down the East Coast worked overtime to prepare, and hordes of anxious shoppers crowded into supermarkets and supply stores.
Even the presidential campaigns were affected. Obama switched travel plans so he could leave Washington on Sunday before the storm begins and reach a rally in Orlando. Then he will return to the White House to monitor the hurricane, rather than heading to Ohio, as had been scheduled. Former president Bill Clinton and Vice President will be at the event in Youngstown, the White House press office said Sunday evening. Instead of hosting three events in Virginia on Sunday, Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign said the candidate would fly to Ohio.
Federal officials said that they expected the storm to create damaging flood and wind conditions across a vast and densely populated portion of the United States, from Virginia to New England, and as far west as the Great Lakes.
“We need to make sure people understand that this is going to go well inland,” Craig Fugate, the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in a conference call with reporters. “This is not a coastal threat alone.”
FEMA officials said they were uncertain which areas would be the most ravaged. The hurricane itself is expected to lose intensity before it merges with a separate storm system in the northeast.
Yet Sandy’s breadth makes its precise path almost irrelevant.
State and federal officials, Fugate said, are planning for several treacherous days throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, probably beginning Monday and perhaps extending to Thursday. Forecasters expect flash flooding from as much as 8 inches of rain. They are preparing for as much as two feet of snow in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina mountains.
In the Washington region, Jason Samenow, a meteorologist for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, predicted the worst of the storm would begin Monday, bringing as much as seven inches of rain and causing wind gusts of over 60 mph.
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the governors of Maryland and Virginia, as well as officials in several localities in the region, declared states of emergency.
Many Maryland schools have also announced they would be closed Monday, including Howard and Calvert counties. Prince George’s County schools are already slated to be closed for an administrative day. In Virginia, Loudoun, Arlington and Alexandria schools will also be closed Monday.
In New Jersey, Christie announced mandatory evacuation of Atlantic City casinos and coastal barrier islands by 4 p.m. Sunday. He warned that power could be out for days.
“Everyone’s saying, ‘This . . . isn’t going to happen — the weathermen always get it wrong, so I’m just going to hang out here,’ ” Christie told reporters Saturday. “Please don’t, okay? We have to be prepared for the worst here.”
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to begin shutting down all subway, bus and commuter rail operations at 7 p.m. Sunday.
Train service was also affected in the Washington region, with the Maryland Transit Administration cancelling all MARC service for Monday. Megabus said it would cancel runs between New York and Washington after 5 p.m. Sunday. Boltbus said it would cancel Monday and Tuesday service in the Northeast.
Air travelers should expect flights to stop going to or from Reagan and Dulles airports until the storm passes, said David Mould, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates the two airports.
At O’Hare International Airport, there was a long line of Washington-bound passengers after United Airlines cancelled its afternoon flights to the D.C. region. Zach Ratner, an energy firm intern who lives in Arlington, arrived at the airport at 7 a.m. because his 5:15 p.m. plane was cancelled. He was resigned to waiting out the storm in Chicago, but made the earlier flight as the last stand-by, smiling as he walked down the aisle to take his middle seat in row 30.
In Ocean City, officials issued a mandatory evacuation Sunday morning for flood-prone, low-lying areas as did surrounding Worcester County for waterfront homes. Traffic leaving the Eastern Shore on Route 50 was backed up by midday, stretching more than three miles in the Queenstown area, according to Maryland State Highway Administration.
David Kline, 41, wasn’t taking any chances. He filled up two gas cans for his generator at an Exxon station just outside Ocean City — the first time in 10 years he had bothered to purchase a generator.
“They’re calling it ‘Frankenstorm’” he said of forecasters. “They must know what they’re talking about.”
Across the Washington region, people crowded into supermarkets and hardware stores, and loaded up on food, supplies - and sand bags.
In Alexandria, officials began distributing 5,000 sandbags at two locations -- the parking lot of George Washington Middle School and the intersection of King and Lee streets in Old Town, not far from the city’s flood-prone waterfront.
Cars began lining up at George Washington well before the 10 a.m. start time and the first allotment of 300 bags was gone in 20 minutes.
“I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes, so I want to make sure I’m ready,” said Aldemar Burgos, 38, an Army First Sergeant of Alexandria. During his various postings, he has endured Hugo in 1989, Andrew in 1992 and Charley in 2004. He was not taking any chances on Sandy, stocking up on provisions, tuning up his generator and stopping by the school to pick up his allotment of five sandbags. “Now I’m good to go,” he said with satisfaction.
Paul Wilson -- a Republican political consultant who has done television ads for vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan-- stopped by to pick up bags for himself and a neighbor. Above and beyond potential flooding and damage to his property, he was worried about the effect of the storm on the presidential race.
“It will steal attention from the candidates,” he said. “You can’t be getting sandbags and paying attention to politics.”
Just then the wind began to pick up.
“I e-mailed my preacher today and said we need a sermon on the wrath of God,” Wilson said. “The storm is coming.”
Brookland Hardware opened its doors in Northeast Washington Sunday to offer “Hurricane Sandy specials.” Residents loaded up with flashlights and sandbags.
“I just hope the storm is not as strong as they say it could be,” said Marx Dupree as he waited for a fresh shipment of batteries to arrive.
Public utility crews were preparing too. Pepco, the power company for the District and suburban Maryland that has been criticized for poor reliability, warned customers of the possibility of long periods without electricity. Company officials predicted that trees still thick with leaves could collapse under the rain and wind, falling on lines, snapping poles and bringing down wires.
Thomas H. Graham, president Pepco Region, said on Sunday that power crews might not be able to start restoring outages until Wednesday due to the predicted length of the storm.
“This is going to be an unprecedented, destructive and dangerous storm,” he said.
Pepco has asked for additional utility workers from 2,900 to 3,600.The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. said it had asked for 2,000 out-of-state utility workers, and the first 1,300 were to begin arriving at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport Sunday.
BGE sent out automated phone calls urging customers to have a plan in place to protect their families and property.
Lori Aratani, Mark Berman, Jeremy Borden, Rebecca Cohen, Tim Craig, Aaron C. Davis, Caitlin Gibson, Hamil R. Harris, Ashley Halsey, Colum F. Lynch in New York, Howard Schneider, Joe Stephens, Martin Weil and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.