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Gathering storm prompts evacuations

Several Eastern states declare emergencies

Wayne Parry Associated Press

SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. – Forget distinctions like tropical storm or hurricane. Don’t get fixated on a particular track. Wherever it hits, the rare behemoth storm inexorably gathering in the Eastern U.S. will afflict a third of the country with sheets of rain, high winds and heavy snow, say officials who warned millions in coastal areas to get out of the way.

“We’re looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people,” said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As Hurricane Sandy barreled north from the Caribbean – where it left nearly five dozen dead – to meet two other powerful winter storms, experts said it didn’t matter how strong the storm was when it hit land: The rare hybrid storm that follows will cause havoc from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.

“This is not a coastal threat alone,” said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “This is a very large area.”

President Barack Obama was monitoring the storm and working with state and local governments to make sure they get the resources needed to prepare, administration officials said.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency Saturday as hundreds of coastal residents started moving inland and the state was set to close its casinos. New York’s governor was considering shutting down the subways to avoid flooding, and half a dozen states warned residents to prepare for several days of lost power.

Sandy weakened briefly to a tropical storm early Saturday but was soon back up to Category 1 strength, packing 75 mph winds about 305 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., as of 11 p.m. Forecasters said the storm was spreading tropical storm conditions across the coastline of North Carolina, and they were expected to move up the mid-Atlantic coastline late today. Experts said the storm was most likely to hit the southern New Jersey coastline by late Monday or early Tuesday.

Governors from North Carolina, where heavy rain was expected today, to Connecticut declared states of emergency. Delaware ordered mandatory evacuations for coastal communities by 8 p.m. today.

The storm forced the presidential campaigns to juggle schedules. Romney scrapped plans to campaign today in the swing state of Virginia and switched his schedule for the day to Ohio. First lady Michelle Obama canceled an appearance in New Hampshire for Tuesday, and Obama moved a planned Monday departure for Florida to tonight to beat the storm. He canceled appearances in northern Virginia on Monday and Colorado on Tuesday.

What makes the storm so dangerous and unusual is that it is coming at the tail end of hurricane season and the beginning of winter storm season, “so it’s kind of taking something from both,” said Jeff Masters, director of the private service Weather Underground.

Masters said the storm could be bigger than the worst East Coast storm on record – the 1938 New England hurricane known as the Long Island Express, which killed nearly 800 people. “Part hurricane, part nor’easter – all trouble,” he said. Experts said to expect high winds over 800 miles and up to 2 feet of snow as far inland as West Virginia.

And the storm was so big, 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.

Officials are particularly worried about the possibility of subway flooding in New York City, Uccellini said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to prepare to shut the city’s subways, buses and suburban trains by today, but delayed making a final decision.

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard and far inland, officials urged residents and businesses to prepare in big ways and little.

On Saturday evening, Amtrak began canceling train service to parts of the East Coast, including between Washington, D.C., and New York. Airlines started moving planes out of East Coast airports to avoid damage and adding flights out of New York and Washington today in preparation for flight cancellations on Monday.

The Virginia National Guard was authorized to call up to 500 troops to active duty for debris removal and road clearing, while homeowners stacked sandbags at their front doors in coastal towns.

Utility officials warned rains could saturate the ground, causing trees to topple into power lines, and told residents to prepare for several days at home without power. “We’re facing a very real possibility of widespread, prolonged power outages,” said Ruth Miller, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.

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