NEW YORK — Hurricane Sandy, the Atlantic Ocean’s biggest-ever tropical storm, barreled toward southern New Jersey after bringing a region with 60 million residents to virtual standstill and upending the U.S. presidential race eight days before Election Day.
The storm, 900 miles wide, prompted warnings of life- threatening surges from Virginia to Massachusetts, emptied the streets of the nation’s largest cities, paralyzed mass-transit systems and lashed the East Coast with gales, rain and even snow. It shut the federal government and state administrations, and prevented U.S. stock markets from opening for two days. Sandy may cause as much as $20 billion in damages, according to Eqecat Inc., a risk-management company in Oakland, California.
“I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election,” said President Barack Obama, who returned to the White House today after canceling an appearance at a campaign rally in Orlando, Florida. “I am worried about the impact on families and I am worried about the impact on our first responders. I am worried about the impact on our economy and on transportation.”
Sandy packed maximum sustained winds of 90 miles (145 kilometers) per hour, up from 75 mph earlier, the National Hurricane Center said at 2 p.m. New York time. The storm’s eye was about 110 miles southeast of Atlantic City, New Jersey. It is not expected to weaken before striking near Cape May, New Jersey, early tonight, the center said.
It may bring a surge of almost 12 feet (3.7 meters) in Manhattan, said Howard Glaser, New York’s director of state operations.
“You can see water lapping up on the west side of New York already,” he said at a news briefing in Manhattan.
The hurricane, blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began lumbering toward the U.S. East Coast, is expected to converge with two other systems, creating a phenomenon the National Weather Service has dubbed Frankenstorm.
“There will be people who die and are killed in this storm,” Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley said at the state’s emergency operations center in Reisterstown.
Off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the crew of the HMS Bounty, a replica of the vessel that was the scene of a 1789 mutiny, abandoned ship when it capsized amid 18-foot seas. The crew took to lifeboats while the Coast Guard hoisted them to safety in helicopters, Kevin Sullivan, a Wilmington, North Carolina-based spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard, said by phone today. Two remained missing after 14 were rescued, the guard said in a statement.
All U.S. equity markets are closed today and tomorrow, the first shutdown for consecutive days due to weather since 1888. Businesses and banks, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc., told employees to work from home. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association recommended that U.S. bond trading end at noon New York time and said it would be suspended tomorrow.
Manhattan’s streets were almost empty of pedestrians and storefronts were dark. In Hoboken, a New Jersey town across the Hudson, the river spilled into parks, onto Sinatra Drive along the waterfront and encircled the Beaux Arts rail terminal. Police used megaphones to tell gawkers to take higher ground.
The Coast Guard station in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was practically surrounded with water this morning during high tide, and a skeleton crew of about 12 retreated to a casino about 11:15 a.m. The post started receiving distress calls from residents who didn’t evacuate, including one from a woman in a house with three children where water was flowing in, said Petty Officer First Class Paul Vanacore.
In Maryland, there was tidal flooding along the Chesapeake Bay. In Ocean City, a resort on the Atlantic Coast, pounding surf flooded the streets downtown and destroyed about half of the city’s fishing pier, O’Malley said.
Insured losses may exceed $6 billion in the U.S., led by costs in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and New York, according to estimates from Kinetic Analysis Corp. compiled by Bloomberg. As many as 10 million people may lose power, according to Seth Guikema, a Johns Hopkins University engineer.
More than 9,500 flights were canceled in the U.S. through tomorrow, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based tracking company, and mass transit stopped in New York, New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.
Crude oil fell for the first time in three days in New York while gasoline prices rose as refineries curbed operations. Phillips 66, NuStar Energy LP (NS) and Hess Corp. (HES) shut or reduced output at New Jersey refineries ahead of the storm’s landfall.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, issued evacuation orders for 375,000 people and opened 72 shelters before the 7 p.m. closing yesterday of the city’s mass-transit system. The Battery and Holland tunnels closed at 2 p.m. today because of flood risks, Glaser said.
Governor Andrew Cuomo said at the briefing that the National Guard is doubling its complement deployed in the state, to total 2,000, and was loading sandbags at the World Trade Center site, which runs a flood risk from the Hudson River.
Connecticut’s Governor Dannel Malloy ordered evacuation of areas home to 363,000 people.
In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie ordered coastal barrier islands and casinos in Atlantic City evacuated. Sixty- three miles of the Garden State Parkway were closed.
Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, the state’s largest city, said he had packed up his own car with water and diapers to deliver them to people in need.
“I need to keep people safe for the next 36 hours as this storm rages,” Booker said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
The storm is also affecting the Nov. 6 elections. Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney canceled appearances today and tomorrow.
The president will “closely monitor the impact of and response to Hurricane Sandy,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
Romney suspended his schedule for the next day and a half, canceling events in Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio.
“Governor Romney believes this is a time for the nation and its leaders to come together to focus on those Americans who are in harm’s way,” spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said in a statement.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said the weather would “throw havoc” into the race, and Republican pollster Whit Ayres said it might change its course.
Residents along the East Coast had more mundane concerns.
In Washington, no eggs or milk could be found on grocery shelves when Lavonda Golden, 51, went shopping this morning.
“People had carts and carts full of stuff like it was going to be doomsday,” she said, while stopping at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a restaurant on U Street.
Golden, a teacher whose school was closed, said most of her students, “are gonna be very, very glad for the weather.”
As for herself, Golden said, she was looking forward to going back to bed.