SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. (AP) — Tens of millions of people in the eastern third of the U.S. in the path of the unprecedented freak storm had hours Sunday to prepare for the first raindrops that were expected later in the day, to be followed over the next few days by sheets of rain, high winds and even heavy snow.
The warning from officials to anyone who might be affected was simple: Be prepared and get out of the way.
Hurricane Sandy was headed north from the Caribbean, where it left nearly five dozen dead, to meet a winter storm and a cold front, plus high tides from a full moon, and experts said the rare hybrid storm that results will cause havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.
"I've been here since 1997, and I never even put my barbecue grill away during a storm," Russ Linke said shortly before he and his wife left Ship Bottom on Saturday. "But I am taking this one seriously. They say it might hit here. That's about as serious as it can get."
He and his wife secured the patio furniture, packed the bicycles into the pickup truck, and headed off the island.
The danger was hardly limited to coastal areas. Forecasters were far more worried about inland flooding from storm surge than they were about winds. Rains could saturate the ground, causing trees to topple into power lines, utility officials said, warning residents to prepare for several days at home without power.
States of emergency were declared from North Carolina, where gusty winds whipped steady rain on Sunday morning, to Connecticut. Delaware ordered mandatory evacuations for coastal communities by 8 p.m. Sunday.
New York City's subways, buses and suburban trains, which make up the nation's largest transit system, will be shut down Sunday night ahead of the storm, New York's governor announced. Officials were particularly worried about the possibility of subway flooding there, said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The city closed the subways before Hurricane Irene last year, and a Columbia University study predicted that an Irene surge just 1 foot higher would have paralyzed lower Manhattan.
Sandy was at Category 1 strength, packing 75 mph winds, about 250 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving northeast at 14 mph as of 11 a.m. Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was about 575 miles south of New York City.
The storm was expected to continue moving parallel to the Southeast coast most of the day and approach the coast of the mid-Atlantic states by Monday night, before reaching southern New England later in the week.
The storm was so big, however, and the convergence of the three storms so rare, that "we just can't pinpoint who is going to get the worst of it," said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
"You never want to be too naive, but ultimately, it's not in our hands anyway," said Andrew Ferencsik, 31, as he purchased plywood and 2-by-4 lumber from a Home Depot in Lewes, Del.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was criticized for not interrupting a vacation in Florida while a snowstorm pummeled the state in 2010, broke off campaigning for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in North Carolina on Friday to return home.
"I can be as cynical as anyone," said Christie, who declared a state of emergency Saturday. "But when the storm comes, if it's as bad as they're predicting, you're going to wish you weren't as cynical as you otherwise might have been."
Up and down the Eastern Seaboard and far inland, officials urged residents and businesses to prepare in ways big and small.
Amtrak began canceling train service Saturday night to parts of the East Coast, including between Washington and New York. Airlines started moving planes out of airports to avoid damage and adding Sunday flights out of New York and Washington in preparation for flight cancellations on Monday.