x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

'Perfect storm' Sandy expected to hit US mainland with hurricane force

Tens of millions of people in the eastern third of the United States in the path of unprecedented freak storm that has shut down New York and experts say is likely to create havoc stretching 1,300 kilometres from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.

SHIP BOTTOM, New Jersey // Tens of millions of people in the eastern third of the United States in the path of the unprecedented freak storm had hours yesterday to prepare for the first rains that were expected later in the day, to be followed by downpours, high winds and even heavy snow.

The warning from officials to anyone who might be affected was simple: Be prepared and get out of the way.

Hurricane Sandy was headed north from the Caribbean, where it left nearly 60 dead, to meet a winter storm and a cold front, plus high tides from a full moon, and experts said the rare hybrid storm that results would cause havoc stretching 1,300 kilometres from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.

"I've been here since 1997, and I never even put my barbecue away during a storm," Russ Linke said before he and his wife left Ship Bottom island on Saturday. "But I am taking this one seriously. They say it might hit here. That's about as serious as it can get."

Shelters began opening and tens of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate coastal areas. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered thousands to leave part of lower Manhattan and other low-lying neighborhoods.

The danger was hardly limited to coastal areas. Forecasters were far more worried about inland flooding from storm surge than they were about winds. Rains could cause trees to topple into power lines, utility officials said, warning residents to prepare for several days without power.

States of emergency were declared from North Carolina, where gusty winds whipped steady rain yesterday, to Connecticut.

New York authorities ordered the subway, commuter trains and buses to close yesterday and will not open the doors to its 1.1 million-student school system today. Airlines have cancelled hundreds of flights into airports along the US east coast.

The storm was expected to approach the coast of the mid-Atlantic states by tonight, before reaching southern New England later in the week.

The storm was so big, however, 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.

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

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

In New Jersey, hundreds of coastal residents started moving inland.

Former sailor Ray Leonard, 85, had advice for those in the path of the storm. Mr Leonard and two crewmates in his 10-metre sailboat rode out 1991's infamous "perfect storm", made famous by the best-selling book of the same name, before being plucked from the Atlantic off Martha's Vineyard by a helicopter.

"Don't be rash," Mr Leonard said on Saturday from his home in Fort Myers, Florida. "Because if this does hit, you're going to lose all those little things you've spent the last 20 years feeling good about."

Click here for updates from the National Hurricane Center