Hurricane Sandy strengthens as storm barrels toward coast

NEW YORK & BOSTON: Hurricane Sandy, the Atlantic's largest-ever tropical storm, will strike the East Coast today with a life-threatening surge, emptying the streets of the nation's largest cities and lashing a region of 60 million with gales, rain and even snow.

The storm, 900 miles across, shut the federal government and state administrations from Virginia to Massachusetts. It halted travel, prevented US stock markets from opening and upended the presidential campaign. It may cause more than US$6 billion in damage and knock out power to 10 million for a week or more.

"We have to take this seriously," President Barack Obama said of what he called "a serious and big storm."

Sandy packed maximum sustained winds of 85 miles (140 kilometers) per hour, up from 75 mph earlier, the National Hurricane Center said at 8 a.m. New York time. The storm's eye was about 310 miles south-southeast of New York, moving at 20 mph. It is not expected to weaken before landfall at Cape May, new Jersey, the center said. It may bring a surge as high as 10 feet (3 meters) in Manhattan.

The hurricane, blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began barreling toward the U.S. East Coast, is expected to converge with two other systems, creating a phenomenon the National Weather Service has dubbed Frankenstorm.

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, was forced to abandon 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. Coast Guard, said by phone today. Two remained missing after 14 were rescued, the guard said in a statement.

All US equity markets will be closed today, including the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, the Securities and Exchange Commission said late yesterday. Businesses and banks, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Citigroup Inc, told employees to work from home as some lower Manhattan offices would be closed.

The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association recommended that US bond trading end today at noon New York time.

Roads on the island were sparsely trafficked about 8.30 a.m., as wind bent treetops and shook cars.

The Coast Guard station in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was nearly surrounded with water this morning during high tide, and a skeleton crew of about 12 remained. Some took their vehicles down the road to an elevated parking garage at the Golden Nugget casino. Sand bags were stacked at its doors.

Sandy's punch may be felt from Virginia to Massachusetts, said Rick Knabb, the hurricane center's director. Warnings of gusts as strong as 70 miles per hour stretch from Maine to North Carolina and as far west as Ohio, according to the National Weather Service.

Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney shifted their campaign schedules and canceled appearances. Obama, who had planned a rally in Orlando this morning, is returning to Washington to monitor the storm, White House spokesman Jay Carney said in an e-mailed statement. Obama called off a trip to Wisconsin tomorrow.

Insured losses may exceed $6 billion in the US, 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 whose computer model shows the storm's potential effects.

Almost 6,000 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, 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 and Hess Corp. 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.

Connecticut's Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy ordered evacuation of areas home to 363,000 people as the storm threatened to pile up water in Long Island Sound, the state's southern shoreline. In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie ordered coastal barrier islands and casinos in Atlantic City evacuated.

On the island of Brigantine, connected to Atlantic City by one bridge, about 70 percent of the town's 9,500 residents remained, said James Bennett, director of its office of emergency management. "We've basically been told to expect to survive on our own for a while if we get cut off," he said in an interview yesterday at the police station.

The storm is also affecting the Nov 6 elections. Maryland's Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley said the state would cancel early voting today, and polling stations will be open Nov 2 instead.

Virginia's Board of Elections is open for extended hours to handle absentee voting driven by the storm, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell said. Connecticut extended its voter-registration deadline by two days, to Nov 1.

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 Takoma Park, Maryland, a Washington suburb, Carol Blymire was preparing with a "cook off the fridge" party with neighbors. Blymire, 44, a freelance food writer, said the menu includes two whole roasted chickens, braised pork shoulder, roasted kale and polenta with meatballs and poached egg. "The rule is, everything that's perishable that would require use of the oven, we're going to make," she said.

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