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Hurricane Sandy Strengthens, Poised to Slam US Coast

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Hurricane Sandy grew stronger and drew ominously closer to the US northeastern coast Monday, bringing much of the region to a standstill, shutting down schools, businesses, airlines, mass transit systems, and prompting hundreds of thousands of evacuations as flooding began in coastal areas, and thousands lost power.

Hurricane Sandy grew stronger and drew ominously closer to the US northeastern coast Monday, bringing much of the region to a standstill, shutting down schools, businesses, airlines, mass transit systems, and prompting hundreds of thousands of evacuations as flooding began in coastal areas, and thousands lost power.

Forecasters warned of the potential loss of life, and predicted the storm would bring widespread flooding and extensive power outages that could take days to repair.

“This is going to be a big and powerful storm and all across the eastern seaboard I think everybody is taking the appropriate preparations," President Barack Obama said after he was briefed on the storm in the White House Situation Room.

Obama cancelled a campaign appearance in Florida on Monday with former President Bill Clinton to return to Washington ahead of the advancing hurricane.

By Monday afternoon Hurricane Sandy was 175 miles (285 km) southeast of New York city with sustained winds of 90 mph (150 kph), up from 75 mph (121 kph) just 12 hours earlier, and gusts of up to 110 mph (177 kph) according to the National Weather Service.

It was approaching landfall at a speed of 28 mph (44 kmh), and was expected to slam into the southern New Jersey coast by early evening.

As Sandy churned its way towards landfall, it tore up beaches and boardwalks along the US east coast.

Forecasters say the category 1 hurricane will not lose much strength until it has moved well inland, and they predicted an “extremely dangerous storm surge” that could bring water levels as high as 11 feet (3.5 meters).

"First will be the coastal impact, then winds knocking out power, then heavy rain where we may get flash flooding, but in some cases we may not get river flooding for several days," administrator Craig Fugate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), told NBC News.

"We’re not expecting the winds inland to be that damaging to homes, but we do think trees are going to get impacted and that will be the biggest problem, knocking down the power grid," he said.

By early afternoon more than 300,000 utility customers had already lost power in seven states, the highest figures in New Jersey and New York, according to CNN.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley offered a grim assessment of the storm, telling reporters, “There will be people who die and are killed in this storm.”

“We need to watch out for each other, but the intensity of this storm is such that there will undoubtedly be some deaths that are caused by the intensity of this storm, by the floods, by the tidal surge, and by the waves,” he said.

With winds and sea levels rising, 375,000 people in New York City were under mandatory evacuation orders, but only a fraction of them had heeded the warnings by Monday and Mayor Michael Bloomberg was clearly exasperated.

“Conditions are deteriorating very rapidly and the window for you getting out safely is closing,” he said, speaking directly to the public at a news conference.

“You can look outside and say ‘oh, this is not bad,’ and that’s correct but it’s going to be,” he added. “The forecasts are reasonably accurate this close to when we’re predicting something.”

The approaching storm made escape tougher by the minute, as much of the Northeast had suspended all flights and shut down trains, buses and subways.

New York’s bustling rail system was deserted on Monday, and in New Jersey, waiting rooms at Newark Penn Station and other rail hubs had been turned into shelters.

The storm brought trading on Wall Street to a halt Monday, and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and Nasdaq stock exchange will be closed on Tuesday as well, the first time in more than 100 years that weather has stopped trading for more than 24 hours.

Plans to run the markets through an electronic platform were scrapped over concerns about the safety of the staff.

“As sophisticated as electronic systems have become, they have not been completely foolproof, so the markets still have a ways to go in designing a truly optimal trading experience,” said analyst Gaston Ceron of Morningstar, an independent investment research firm, in Forbes.

Just eight days ahead of the US presidential election, Hurricane Sandy interrupted campaign plans for both sides as well as early voting in Washington and several states.

Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney cancelled campaign events through Tuesday.

“I am not worried about the impact of this storm on the election,” Obama said at an afternoon news conference at the White House.

“The election will take care of itself next week. Right now our number one priority is to make sue that we are saving lives,” he said.

At a campaign stop in Ohio on Monday before he cancelled his campaign events, Romney said, “We’ve faced these kinds of challenges before ... It’s interesting to see how Americans have come together. This looks like another time when we need to come together all across the country.”

 

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