WASHINGTON // Fifty million people were braced last night for the largest storm ever to hit the mainland US.
The 1,600-kilometre wide Hurricane Sandy gained in strength from the east over the Atlantic, on a collision course with a winter storm from the west and cold air rushing in from the Arctic.
The result is expected to be a devastating force of nature from Virginia to Canada that meteorologists have called Frankenstorm.
Forecasters fear the worst of the storm surge, a wall of water more than three metres high, could swamp lower Manhattan, flood the subways and cripple the underground network of electrical and communications lines.
Public transport was shut down, schools and government offices were closed and New York's stock exchange shuttered yesterday, the first such closure in 27 years.
Thousands of people in New Jersey started the day without power and by afternoon more than 30,000 in Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey had no electricity.
The storm washed away an old section of the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk and left most of the city's empty streets under water.
Vincent C Gray, Washington's mayor, said the storm was unique, large and dangerous, and could cause havoc.
Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, said: "This storm is a killer storm that will take more lives as she makes landfall." Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes in coastal areas for higher ground.
The New York mayor Michael Bloomberg issued an evacuation order for 375,000 people in zones at risk of floods, but by last night only 3,000 people had complied.
"Conditions are deteriorating very rapidly and the window for getting out safely is closing," Mr Bloomberg said.
The disaster estimator Eqecat warned that the storm could cause $20 billion (Dh73.5bn) worth of damage. "Sandy is a large storm, impacting 20 per cent of the US population," said Tom Larsen, Eqecat senior vice president.
The storm threatens to bring a near halt to air travel in the eastern US for at least two days. Emirates and Etihad Airways both cancelled all flights from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to New York yesterday.
American Airlines, United and Delta also cancelled all flights into and out of three area airports in New York, the US's busiest airspace. Nearly 10,000 flights in total were cancelled for Monday and Tuesday, almost all related to the storm.
Nine US states have declared states of emergency and emergency services were on high alert across the eastern seaboard. Nine days before the US presidential election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both cancelled election commitments as the storm approached.
Mr Obama chose to forgo an appearance in Florida to monitor US government preparations and the emergency response from Washington.
"I am not worried at this point about the impact on the election," he said in the capital yesterday. "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. The election will take care of itself next week."
Although Mr Obama said he was confident the US was prepared to deal with the force of Sandy, the storm has already caused damage in the Caribbean.
It killed 66 people last week as it made its way over Cuba and Haiti, largely from flash flooding and mudslides. And the hurricane claimed its first victim in the US before hitting land, sinking the HMS Bounty, a replica of the original Bounty that was used in the 1962 Marlon Brando movie, Mutiny on the Bounty, and has since figured as The Black Pearl in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
Fourteen of the 16-strong crew were rescued after they were forced to abandon ship early Monday morning. US Coast Guard helicopters were searching for the two missing yesterday.
The Category 1 storm with winds at speeds of over 140 kilometres an hour strengthened early on Monday as it turned towards the coast and was moving at 24kph. It is still far less powerful than Hurricane Katrina, the Category 5 storm that devastated America's south coast in 2005.
Unlike Katrina, however, Sandy comes at the head of a rare confluence of weather systems.
Meteorologists describe Sandy as a hybrid "super storm" created by an Arctic jet stream wrapping itself around a tropical storm whose effects were compounded by yesterday's full moon, which drove tides to unusually high levels. It could cause up to 30 centimetres of rain in some areas, as well as up to one metre of snowfall in the Appalachian Mountains.
The business district of Washington DC a virtual ghost town. With government agencies closed and public transport shut down, only a few cars braved the driving rain, and the few shops and coffee chains that remained open were almost empty.
Rose Velasquez, 24, said she had not yet been given any time off from the branch of a large pharmaceutical chain where she was at work yesterday morning. She spent all weekend preparing for the storm at home in Maryland with her parents and three younger siblings.
"We've put sandbags down and bought water and canned food. I think we'll be fine. We are getting used to living without power," she said. A freak storm in the Washington area in late June left hundreds of thousands without power in sweltering temperatures.
Eloise Jones, 33, a waitress at a popular oyster bar in north-west Washington, was shopping for last-minute emergency supplies at Ms Velasquez's pharmacy. Bottled water and batteries become suddenly scarce commodities during extreme weather warnings with even large supermarkets left with empty shelves as people hurry to stock up. But Ms Jones, a Washington DC native, said she knew she could always buy from city-centre shops where few people live and stock rarely runs out.
"If it gets bad, I'll eat a can of tuna by candlelight," she said, shrugging her shoulders at the many warnings from local authorities and in the media. "It's never as bad as they say."
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse