Pennsylvania remained in Hurricane Sandy's crosshairs Sunday, with forecasters predicting a one-two punch of wind and rain to start hitting the Lehigh Valley late tonight.
Although a degree of uncertainty remains about the storm's precise path, there is little doubt that it will strike most of the mid-Atlantic region at the same time as a winter storm from the west and an arctic air mass from Canada move into the area.
"It's going to be one those storms you'll remember," said National Weather Service meteorologist Valerie Meola.
The combination of weather patterns could create a hybrid storm of historical proportions based on its estimated size and duration, meteorologists said. Tropical-storm force winds will extend from the Carolinas to southern New England and could swirl over the northeast until Wednesday.
Sandy, which was briefly downgraded to a tropical storm Saturday morning before regaining hurricane strength, was churning north in the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast late Saturday. Its maximum winds were clocked at 75 mph, the minimum for hurricane status, although higher gusts were recorded.
"Little overall change in strength is forecast during the next couple of days," according to a National Weather Service report Saturday.
The storm was on track Saturday night to make landfall around Cape May Courthouse late Monday night or early Tuesday, according to the Weather Service. But strong winds and torrential rains will be felt long before Sandy's eye crosses the coast.
The Weather Service predicts 4-8 inches of rain and winds gusting more than 50 mph, with the worst of the weather expected to strike the Lehigh Valley on Monday and continue Tuesday.
Mike Mark of Whitehall Township was taking the storm seriously Saturday afternoon as he wheeled a cart full of bottled water and frozen pizza to his SUV at the Wegmans in Hanover Township, Northampton County.
"It's just to be safe," Mark said, patting the cases of water in the cart. "I'd rather have two cases of beer."
Mark also gassed up and checked his generator in case the storm knocks out power to his home. He said he bought one last year after Hurricane Irene thumped the region.
"I'm a ex-Boy Scout," Mark said, "I'm always prepared."
Inside Wegmans, Sandy's impact could be seen on the bare shelves in the water aisle — though bottled water was available in other parts of the store. Bread remained plentiful, though most varieties of peanut butter were scarce.
Sandy's still uncertain path will dictate what areas sustain the greatest impact. More rain will fall to the south and west of the storm's eye, while wind-driven storm surges — exacerbated by a full moon Monday — will be most severe north and east of the eye, Meola said.
One early prediction that the union of Arctic air and tropical moisture would bring copious amounts of snow to Pennsylvania is unlikely to pan out, she added.
Up to two feet of snow, however, is forecast for parts of West Virginia and western North Carolina, the weather service said.
Flooding may make driving difficult Monday morning when streams may start spilling their banks and water may pool on streets. Significant river flooding across Pennsylvania is likely to follow, forecasters said.
The flooding situation is not as dire as it was when Irene struck last September, Meola said. Irene was preceded by weeks of wet weather, but now the ground is dry and river levels are relatively low.
With the flooding and extended power outages after Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and a freak Halloween snowstorm last fall fresh in their minds, many Lehigh Valley residents are spending the weekend preparing for the worst.
Chris Shala was raising cases of beer and new coolers as high above the floor as he could get them at Kicker's Pub on West Main Street in Bath Saturday, after Lee's rains destroyed his old coolers. Last year, the sump pumps in the historic tavern's basement were no match for the Monocacy Creek, which spilled its banks and settled three feet high in the pub.
"I'm being proactive. I made sure my pumps are ready and the generator is filled up," Shala said.
Ken Klinger, co-owner of Basement Waterproofing Specialists in Collegeville plans to have seven crews ready to respond to calls from businesses like Shala's that may be under water.
"Right now we are getting panic calls," Klinger said Saturday at the 10th Annual Fall Eastern Pennsylvania Home Show in Allentown.
Joshua Tree, a Stockertown tree-trimming company, has put all its workers on standby, said employee Jamie Sampson.
"If we get 70 mph winds, we're not going to be able to go out until the next day," Sampson said .
But if the storm is anything like the snowstorm that brought more than 6 inches of snow to the Lehigh Valley last Oct. 29 , Sampson said, they will be busy.
Jared Markowitz, 61, however, is not worried, even though the Little Lehigh Creek flows near his Macungie home.
"Being worried doesn't get you anywhere," he said. "It's going to be what it's going to be."
The storm is expected to be particularly harsh on utilities. PPL Electric Utilities has canceled employees' vacations and tripled its local workforce by calling in 1,500 extra crew members from as far away as Arkansas. In the past year, PPL has improved its customer service system to handle more calls and expanded tree-trimming efforts to reduce the number of branches falling on lines.
Lehigh and Northampton counties are working with the American Red Cross of the Greater Lehigh Valley to establish a shelter for people forced out of their homes by the storm. The shelter's location will be announced when it opens sometime Monday, Northampton County emergency management director Bob Mateff said.
On Friday, Gov. Tom Corbett declared a disaster emergency, which authorizing state agencies to do what is necessary to get ready for the storm.
Mandatory evacuations are under way in southern New Jersey's barrier islands, which people were ordered to leave by Sunday afternoon, and Gov. Chris Christie ordered the evacuations of all Atlantic City casinos.
"We should not underestimate the impact of this storm and not assume the predictions will be wrong," Christie said during a storm briefing Saturday in North Middletown, near the coast. "We have to be prepared for the worst."
New York City officials on Saturday had made no decision on whether any of the city's public transportation outlets would be shut, despite predictions that a sudden shift of the storm's path north could cause a surge of 3 to 6 feet in the subways.
Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the forecasting service Weather Underground, said this could be as big, perhaps bigger, than the worst East Coast storm on record, a 1938 New England hurricane that is sometimes known as the Long Island Express, which killed nearly 800 people.
People should take precautions and use common sense, said Lehigh County emergency management director Tom Nervine. Have supplies on hand to get through days without power and possibly municipal or well water. And don't, he warned, go out in the storm if you don't have to.
"Some people do because they want to experience it," he said. "That's a good way to get injured or killed."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Why Sandy is a super storm
•Hurricane Sandy is moving very slowly toward the north-northeast and is expected to become what's known as an extratropical storm. Unlike a tropical system that gets its power from warm ocean waters, extratropical systems are driven by temperature contrasts in the atmosphere. At some point, probably Monday, Sandy will begin to turn back toward the coast and eventually make landfall over Delaware or New Jersey.
•Sandy is expected to merge with a wintry system from the west, at which point it will become a powerful superstorm as winds from that storm pull Sandy back toward the U.S. mainland.
•Frigid air from Canada also is expected to collide with Sandy and the wintry storm from the west, creating a megastorm that may park over the northeast for days. Northern states are bracing for nearly a foot of rain, high winds and up to 2 feet of snow.
•Further complicating matters is a full moon Monday that will bring higher tides than usual and the possibility of dangerous storm surges along the coast.
•The super storm brings two possibilities for knocking out electricity: hurricane-force winds could send trees into power lines or topple power poles; those left standing could succumb to snow in some places, which could weigh down still-leafy branches enough to also topple trees.
Source: The Associated Press
Flooding could start on creeks and streams early Monday and on rivers later Monday. On Saturday, all creeks and rivers in the area were well below flood stage:
Easton, 4.5 feet; flood stage, 22 feet.
Lehighton, 3.6 feet; flood stage, 10 feet.
Walnutport, 3 feet; flood stage, 8 feet
Bethlehem, 2.5 feet; flood stage, 16 feet.
•Little Lehigh Creek
Allentown 2.5 feet; flood stage 8 feet.
Allentown 0.1 foot; flood stage, 8 feet.
Source: National Weather Service
Make a survival kit
If waiting out the storm at home, prepare a kit that includes: flashlights and extra batteries; portable, battery-operated radio and extra batteries; first aid kit and manual; non-perishable food and water; non-electric can opener; medicines; cash, credit cards and important legal documents; and sturdy shoes.
If ordered to evacuate, be prepared to take with you: checkbooks; driver's license; credit card information; birth certificates; Social Security cards; and other documents proving ownership and identity.
More info: http://www.readypa.org; 888-973-2397
Source: Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency
Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton-Phillipsburg have postponed their Halloween parades, which had been scheduled for today.