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Hurricane Sandy barrels toward Northeast; ‘Get out before you can’t’

A satellite image provided by NASA shows Hurricane Sandy off the East Coast.
(NASA)

Hurricane Sandy churned the Atlantic Ocean as it barreled northward bringing fierce winds, drenching rains and flooding to the nation’s Northeast, where officials warned residents to stay home and ordered those along coastlines to head to high ground.

“Get out before you can’t,” Connecticut’s governor, Dannel Malloy, told residents of his state early Monday.

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New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie was more blunt: “Don’t be stupid. Get out.”

PHOTOS: Hurricane Sandy approaches

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Christie said Monday that there was already flooding along the Barrier Islands and said the flooding will increase later in the day as the high tide rolls in. In addition, there were 35,000 people without power in the state.

Sandy, described as a behemoth superstorm that is strengthening as it moves toward land, was about 300 miles southeast of New York at 8 a.m., according to the National Hurricane Center. The center of the storm is expected to hit in the mid-Atlantic coast around southern New Jersey and is expected to impact some 50 million people in the nation’s most heavily populated corridor.

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Sandy is belting sustained winds of more than 85 mph with higher gusts and is moving north and westward at about 20 mph.

PHOTOS: Massive U.S. storms -- Frankenstorm, Snowpocalypse and more

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Part of the problem was Sandy’s sheer size. Hurricane-force winds were clocked up to 175 miles from the storm’s center, with tropical storm-force winds blowing as much as 485 miles from the center, meteorologists said.

New York’s harbor, bridges and major roads--normally a frenzy of Monday morning commuters--were quiet as the sun rose. Whitecaps dotted the waters around the Statue of Liberty, lower Manhattan, and in the East and Hudson rivers, where all ferry service was halted. Street signs shuddered in the wind, which howled as it roared down the narrow avenues of Manhattan, which were turned into wind tunnels.

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Schools were ordered shut across several states and even the federal government closed down, as did Wall Street trading. Transportation was at a crawl because of bridge and tunnel closures and thousands of flights were canceled.

As many as half a million people--10% of the region’s population--were warned by their elected leaders to head to high ground before the worst of the weather hits.

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Forecasters said the hurricane could blow ashore Monday night or early Tuesday along the New Jersey coast, then cut across into Pennsylvania and travel up through New York on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to be under the impacts of this,” Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate said on “CBS This Morning” on Monday. “You know, we’ve got blizzard warnings as far west as West Virginia, Appalachian Mountains, but I think the biggest concern right now are the people in the evacuation areas. They’re going to face the most immediate threats with the storm surge.”

Forecasters said they expect Sandy to hit and then slow down over land, meaning that fierce winds and lashing rains could continue for days, testing utilities, shelters, provisions and the patience of millions of residents.

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It isn’t just Sandy that was the problem. Other storms, one from the West and cold air from Canada, are expected to merge with the hurricane as the trio of ill winds blow northward.

“This is not a typical storm,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett told reporters on Monday. “This is a hurricane wrapped in a nor’easter.’’

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Complicating the situation is the expected surge of water pushed by winds onto the shores along the Atlantic. A full moon means that tides will be at the highest. In some areas, surges of 4 to 12 feet are expected, more than enough to flood low-lying regions, mainly in New York and New Jersey. Officials warned that the seawater could flood lower Manhattan, flood subway tunnels and cripple the electrical and communications lines. Power outages across the region could last days.

Officials have been preparing for days for the onslaught of the storm, which roared across the Caribbean last week, killing at least 60 people. Officials began moving utility crews and supplies over the weekend. Warnings crossed partisan lines, as Republican and Democrat governors declared states of emergency, ordered evacuations and told people who could, to stay home.

“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. This is a serious and dangerous storm,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned.

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Still, some people were resisting the evacuation orders, instead opting to pile sandbags in front of doors, boarding windows with wood planks, and emptying store shelves of food and water.

As of 8 a.m., only 2,753 people had showed up at the 76 emergency storm shelters set up in New York City, where some 375,000 residents were in areas under mandatory evacuation neighborhoods.

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At his home in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a mandatory evacuation area, Pat Murano, whose basement apartment sits well below street level, struggled Sunday evening to decide whether to stay or heed the evacuation order. Murano said he had not planned on leaving or even preparing much in advance, because his street was spared flooding during Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. But as he saw others in the neighborhood stacking sandbags at doorsteps and pounding wood over their windows, Murano admitted that his apathy began turning to worry.

“It’s a contagious enthusiasm for taking precautions,” said Murano as his friend, Samantha Citrin, drove off to fetch filler for sandbags. “I think we’re staying,” Murano finally said as he pondered how best to nail a wooden plank over his windows.

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The nation’s capital was wet and shuttered Monday as workers heeded the weekend warnings and stayed home. Rush hour was more like a meditative minute as commuters stayed away.

Like a lot of D.C. workers, Jeffrey Solsby stayed home in Alexandria, Va., where the weather was relatively mild with a steady drizzle.

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“We are in full hunker mode,” he said. “We’re stocked with a Cold War bunker’s worth of food and water and are taking advantage of the free time to organize our basement,” he said via email. “‘We are rationing the television for the kids and they are thus far occupied with art projects. And, we are planning play-dates with neighborhood kids to keep the cabin fever at bay.”

“We’re not nervous, we are as prepared as we can be,” he said.

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In Pennsylvania, officials said they were keeping a close watch on the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, which flow on either side of Philadelphia. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said both rivers were likely to flood, endangering residents on the city’s eastern and western flanks. He warned residents of low-lying areas to evacuate.

“Philadelphia is in the path” of the storm, Nutter said. “There’s no sign this storm is weakening.”

Forecasters predicted wind gusts of up to 60 mph in the Philadelphia region, with steady gusts of 30 to 40 mph Monday and Tuesday.

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Power companies in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland began reporting the first power outages from the rapidly advancing storm late Monday morning, even as Sandy was 205 miles from Atlantic City, N.J. More than 20,000 customers were without power in southern New Jersey, Atlantic City Electric and Public Service Electric and Gas Co. reported. An additional 6,300 outages were reported in Maryland and Delaware by Delmarva Power and Light. Scattered outages were reported in five southeastern Pennsylvania counties by Philadelphia Electric Co., or PECO.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia’s Nutter have warned residents to expect widespread outages when the full brunt of the storm begins to hammer the region late Monday. They said the outages could last for several days because repair crews cannot work in high winds. “This storm could very well be historic,” Corbett said.

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Damage is expected to top $1 billion, officials have estimated. The first reports of damage were reported at the Maryland beach resort of Ocean City where the town’s pier district took an overnight pounding and parts of downtown were under a foot of water, officials said. They warned residents to stay away from windows and “not be fooled if there is a lull in the storm, as it could be the eye of the storm and winds could pick up again.”

Even politics was forced into a slower mode as President Obama canceled more campaign events to head back to Washington to monitor the storm. The White House announced Obama was canceling the president’s trip to Green Bay, Wis., on Tuesday. Earlier, the president decided not to attend a noon rally in Orlando, Fla.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney campaigned in the Midwest, but had canceled events in Virginia on Sunday and New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Air passengers from Hong Kong to Europe were stranded as airlines, including American, United and Delta, canceled flights. More than 7,500 flights were taken off the board by weather conditions. As New York area airports were closed, the delays spread through the nation, hitting Los Angeles and Chicago.

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At Reagan National Airport, no more commercial flights are expected Monday, after the last one took off about 9 a.m. Monday. “There are very few people in the terminals,” said spokesman Rob Yingling.

“They’re probably someplace more comfortable, knowing that since flight operations have stopped, it’s going to be some time before the airlines resume them.”

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Staff writer Michael Muskal contributed from Los Angeles

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