Hurricane Sandy took a short breather early Saturday and weakened into a tropical storm, but only for a couple of hours.
As 50 million people in the storm's Mid-Atlantic and Northeast target area began their weekend, it regained hurricane strength and resumed its slow, threatening march off the Eastern Seaboard.
It is expected to push heavy rains into most of the region by Monday and make landfall in New Jersey late Monday, according to computer forecasting models.
For one-sixth of the U.S. population, the storm's winds, rains and potential snow could cause widespread havoc. Weather forecasters predict up to 10 inches of rain in some regions, snowstorms in others and widespread wind damage that could down power lines.
As of 2 p.m., the center of Hurricane Sandy was about 335 miles southeast of Charleston, S.C., according to the National Hurricane Center. It remained a Category 1 hurricane with a wind speed of 75 mph.
Sandy is moving to the north-northeast at about 11 mph.
The hurricane center reported that hurricane-force winds of at least 74 mph extend outward up to 105 miles from the center, while tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 450 miles. Tropical-storm-force winds are from 39-73 mph.
AccuWeather is reporting that Hurricane Sandy remains on track to become a historical storm, with places from Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, Va., to Boston bracing for catastrophic impacts. The worst of Sandy is still forecast to be Monday through Tuesday.
If Sandy hits near New York City, as one weather model predicts, the storm surge will be capable of overtopping the flood walls in Manhattan, which are only five feet above mean sea level, according to Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters.
Storm surge is the massive mound of water that builds up and is pushed ashore as a hurricane moves over the ocean. Sandy's storm surge may be higher than Hurricane Irene's, Masters said, and has the potential to flood New York City's subway system.
The storm's landfall along the Mid-Atlantic coast "would likely be a billion-dollar disaster," Masters added. He also noted that the full moon will occur Monday, which means astronomical tides will be at their peak for the month, increasing potential storm surge flooding.
The American Red Cross is readying shelters, volunteers and supplies to help coastal areas from Virginia to New England. "We want to make sure we're ready to spring into action as soon as we're needed," spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego says.
The Red Cross has been shipping blood to hospitals in the affected region.
"We want to make sure all our hospitals have adequate blood supplies prior to the event itself," Borrego says.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent incident management teams to Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont to help local emergency managers prepare for the storm and its aftermath.
The agency also sent liaison officers to emergency operations centers in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. The Defense Department has sent officers to deploy with the FEMA teams to coordinate possible search-and-rescue missions.
"This is a big storm with potential impacts beyond coastal areas. Know your risks, have a plan and be prepared," FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate says. "Now is the time to update your family communication plans, check your supplies, and stay informed."
FEMA has stockpiled supplies, including generators, blankets, water and food, throughout the Eastern Seaboard and at military bases in the region, including Fort Dix in New Jersey.
National Guard soldiers have been mobilized ahead of Hurricane Sandy in several states including North Carolina, Virginia, and Connecticut.
In North Carolina, 75 members of the National Guard have been positioned around the state to provide emergency relief if needed, said Julia Jarema, a spokeswoman for North Carolina Emergency Management.
Soldiers in Raleigh, Tarboro, and Washington, N.C. may be called to give out supplies, perform rescue missions, or help with general operation.
National Guard soldiers and state troopers are taking pre-storm positions in Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell said Saturday. Contractors--include those in charge of removing debris--have also been readied.
"We're about as ready as we're going to be able to be," McDonnell said. "Our biggest concern remains that this will be a storm of lengthy duration."
Meanwhile, Verizon has also positioned generators in specific locations around Virginia to back up equipment, a company official said.
"Sandy could pose an enormous threat to major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, like New York City and Long Island, Atlantic City and Baltimore," says Howard Botts, vice president of CoreLogic, a research and consulting firm based in Santa Ana, Calif.
AccuWeather meteorologist Tom Kines says winds could have the biggest impact, causing widespread power outages. "You've got to be concerned since it's an area with such a large population," Kines says.
Storm surge remains one of the biggest threats from the storm: Data from CoreLogic shows that more than 261,000 total residential properties valued at more than $80 billion are at risk from potential storm-surge damage among the coastal Mid-Atlantic states, assuming the storm hits the coast as a Category 1 hurricane.
"This will be a long-lasting event, with two to three days of impact," said James Franklin, branch chief of the National Hurricane Center. "Wind damage, widespread power outages, inland flooding and storm surge are all likely."
Sandy is gearing up for an assault from South Carolina to New England. Weather forecasters said the storm is likely to run into a cold front approaching from the Midwest, which could dump up to 2 feet of snow in parts of West Virginia and Virginia.
"This is a very unusual weather event as a result of a late season hurricane combining with cold front from the West,'' said Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who declared a state emergency Friday in advance of the storm to aid disaster preparations. "This is still an unpredictable weather event, but one that's possibly very dangerous."
In the final weeks before the U.S. presidential election Nov. 6, the storm was presenting a challenge to the campaigns of President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Romney cancelled a rally scheduled for Sunday evening in Virginia Beach, Va., and President Obama's re-election campaign announced that Vice President Joe Biden had also cancelled a Saturday trip to Virginia Beach.
Delaware was bracing for a threat rivaling the March 1962 nor'easter that has stood as the state's worst storm. Delaware's top environmental officer, Dept. Natural Resources and Environmental Control Sec. Collin O'Mara, said Sandy could unleash record waves and tidal flooding along the coast."The potential on this is greater than the defenses that we have in mostplaces," O'Mara said. "We're taking this as an extremely significant problem,probably the most-significant we've seen in decades. We're taking every possible precaution."
Insurer Allstate was expanding efforts to prepare for the storm, spokeswoman April Eaton said."We are currently rolling our catastrophe personnel, mobile claim centers and catastrophe response vehicles to Raleigh, N.C., for staging," she said. "Staging allows us to get our national catastrophe team members and units positioned in a safe place, but close to areas that may be impacted by Sandy. Once we see where the hurricane makes landfall, and authorities allow us in, we're able to move from the staging area or holding pattern and go into the heavily damaged communities to help Allstate customers begin the claim process."Eaton said they plan to send nine mobile claim centers to Raleigh, N.C., and Allentown, Pa.
Florida Power Light officials reported as many as 8,500 customers in Brevard County lost power Friday. About 400 customers remained without power about 10 p.m.
The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm warning as far north in Florida as St. Augustine and parts of North and South Carolina.
Tropical storm warnings were issued for parts of Florida's East Coast, along with parts of coastal North and South Carolina and the Bahamas. Tropical storm watches were issued for coastal Georgia and parts of South Carolina, along with parts of Florida and Bermuda.
However, by Saturday afternoon, Florida's emergency management agency returned to its regular status after the National Hurricane Center discontinued all tropical storm watches and warnings for the state's east coast.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management now says it is prepared to assist other states if requested.
Power outages could last for days, Weather Channel meteorologist Chris Dolce says, and there could be just enough cold air to produce wet snow, possibly heavy, in some parts of the central Appalachian mountains of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Pepco, the electric company that provides service to Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland, has activated emergency teams and begun scheduling workers who might have to assess damage, restore power and coordinate with other power companies in the region, spokesman Marcus Beal said.
"We're already making plans and working as if this is a definite event," he says.
In New Jersey, officials told people to be prepared for several days without electricity. Today Gov. Chris
Christie declared a state of emergency. Jersey Shore beach towns began issuing voluntary evacuations and protecting boardwalks. Atlantic City casinos made contingency plans to close, and officials advised residents of flood-prone areas to stay with family or be ready to leave. Airlines said to expect cancellations and waived change fees for passengers who want to reschedule.
Workers at the Francis Asbury Manor assisted-living facility in Neptune Township are helping about 110 residents prepare for an evacuation at 10 a.m. Sunday. Most will be bused to a sister facility in Newton, says Jan Carrato, a spokeswoman for United Methodist Homes, which operates both facilities. Some will go to nursing homes inland and some will stary with relatives.
New York City began precautions for an ominous but still uncertain forecast. No decision had been made on whether any of the city's public transportation outlets would be shut, despite predictions that a sudden shift of the storm's path could cause a surge of 3 to 6 feet in the subways.
"We want to make sure we are connecting with everybody and that we will have a game plan in place if the storm requires us to respond," said Paul Shipman, a spokesman for the American Red Cross in Connecticut and Rhode Island. He added that volunteers have already been called to be on alert.
Shipman encouraged iPhone and Android users to download the Red Cross' Hurricane app.
At least 43 deaths in Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti were in Sandy's wake, including a 4-month-old Cuban boy crushed when his home collapsed.
What's creating this monster? A combination of Hurricane Sandy and another storm over the eastern USA, writes meteorologist James Cisco of the Hydrometeorological Prediction Center in an online report.
The winds from Sandy, Cisco writes, will be "incorporated into a hybrid vortex over the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast next Tuesday." This "unusual merger should settle back toward the interior Northeast through Halloween, inviting perhaps a ghoulish nickname for the cyclone along the lines of 'Frankenstorm,' an allusion to Mary Shelley's gothic creature of synthesized elements."
By YAMICHE ALCINDOR
and DOYLE RICE
(Contributing: David Jackson; Gary Strauss; Jeff Montgomery, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal; Florida Today; Associated Press.)