Officials warned that Hurricane Sandy, creeping north from the Caribbean where it killed more than 60 people, could disrupt life in the Northeast for days.
Hurricane Sandy, a menacing storm that forecasters said would bring “life-threatening” flooding, churned toward some of the nation’s most densely populated areas on Sunday, prompting widespread evacuations and the shutdown of New York City’s transit system.
Officials warned that the hurricane, creeping north from the Caribbean where it killed more than 60 people, could disrupt life in the Northeast for days.
New York went into emergency mode, ordering more than 370,000 people evacuated in low-lying communities from Coney Island in Brooklyn to Battery Park City in Manhattan and giving 1.1 million schoolchildren a day off on Monday. The city opened evacuation shelters at 76 public schools.
The National Hurricane Center said it expected the storm to swing inland, probably on Monday evening. The hurricane center reported that the storm was packing sustained winds of almost 75 miles an hour.
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“We’re going to have a lot of impact, starting with the storm surge,” said Craig Fugate, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Think, ‘Big.’ “
And Halloween figured to be a washout.
The subway closing began at 7 p.m. to darken every one of the city’s 468 stations for the second time in 14 months, as officials encouraged the public to stay indoors and worked to prevent a storm surge from damaging tracks and signal equipment in the tunnels. A suspension of bus service was ordered for 9 p.m.
Amtrak said it would cancel most trains on the Eastern Seaboard, major airlines canceled thousands of flights in the Northeast, the Coast Guard closed New York Harbor, parks-department workers in Central Park told people to leave on Sunday and to stay away until the storm passed, and the New York Stock Exchange decided to close its trading floor, as the region faced the possibility of being all but shut down Monday.
The storm preparations and cancellations were not confined to New York.
Federal offices in the Washington, D.C., area will be closed; only emergency employees will be on the job. The Washington transit system — its Metrorail subway and its buses — will also be shut down Monday across the entire system.
Schools in Washington, Baltimore and Boston called off Monday’s classes.
Forecasters said the hurricane was a strikingly powerful storm that could reach far inland.
Hurricane-force winds from the storm stretched 175 miles from the center, an unusually wide span, and tropical-storm winds extended outward 520 miles. Forecasters said they expected high-altitude winds to whip every state east of the Mississippi River.
The hurricane center said through the day on Sunday that Hurricane Sandy was “expected to bring life-threatening storm surge flooding to the mid-Atlantic Coast, including Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.”
The center said the surges could reach 11 feet in New York Harbor, Long Island Sound and Raritan Bay in New Jersey — significantly higher than previous forecasts and significantly above the levels recorded during Tropical Storm Irene last year, the last time the subway was shut down.
Forecasters said the water could top 8 feet from Ocean City, Md., to the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island. They predicted the waves would rise to 6 feet on the south shore of Cape Cod.
Hour after hour on Sunday, long before high tide, high waves pounded the dunes that protect the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Del.
And in East Hampton, N.Y., where Mabel Harmon and her neighbors had spent the day tying down patio furniture, the wind was already “blowing like crazy,” she said Sunday afternoon.
Forecasters also warned that rain could saturate the ground and that trees could tumble across roads or onto power lines.
President Obama, who attended a briefing with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, called Hurricane Sandy “a big and serious storm.”
“My main message to everybody involved is that we have to take this seriously,” the president said.
From North Carolina to Connecticut, officials declared emergencies and directed residents to leave areas near the shore.
Delaware ordered coastal communities evacuated by 8 p.m. Sunday.
In New Jersey, gamblers scrambled to play a few last rounds of blackjack before leaving the Atlantic City casinos under orders from Gov. Chris Christie.
Across the Northeast, the wind threatened to knock down power lines, and surging waters could flood utility companies’ generators and other equipment.
Con Edison did not provide an estimate of how long customers in the New York City area might be without power if the storm brought havoc on its network; by contrast, the parent company of Jersey Central Power and Light warned as long ago as Friday that repairs could take 10 days after the storm passed through.
Another utility in New Jersey, the Public Service Electric and Gas Co., said that restoring power could take a week.
Forecasters said Hurricane Sandy could deliver something besides wind and rain: snow. That is because a system known as a midlatitude trough — which often causes severe winter storms — was moving across the country from the west. It was expected to draw in Hurricane Sandy, giving it added energy.
A blast of arctic air is expected to sweep down through the Canadian Plains just as the two storms converge.
That could lead to several feet of heavy, wet snow in West Virginia and lighter amounts in Pennsylvania and Ohio that could bring down trees and power lines if already chilly temperatures drop below freezing.
The full moon on Monday could cause even greater flooding, because tides will be at their peak.
The possibility of a higher surge was one reason Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York ordered mandatory evacuations in low-lying areas, just as he did before Tropical Storm Irene. One city official said there was particular concern about Con Edison’s Lower Manhattan infrastructure, noting that if the storm surge washed over the bulkheads, it could damage the utility’s electrical and steam networks. If the surge runs as high as forecast, Con Ed will shut off two electrical networks in Lower Manhattan.
Joseph J. Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said he expected the transit systems to restore at least some service about 12 hours after the storm ended.
But he warned that the city could be without mass transit for as many as two full work days.
“I do think Monday and Tuesday are going to be difficult days,” Lhota said.
But while the mayor said schoolchildren could take Monday off, city workers could not: He said city offices would be open for business.