Hurricane Sandy’s outer bands pummeled the East Coast on Monday with howling winds, torrential downpours and storm surges that authorities warned could bring widespread devastation.
“This is the most catastrophic event that we have faced and been able to plan for in any of our lifetimes,” Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy said.
The storm’s centre was expected to make landfall by early evening along or just south of the southern New Jersey coast.
An expected storm surge at midnight could raise water levels to 11 feet above normal high tide, bringing “the potential to cause unprecedented damage.”
By Monday afternoon, more than 765,000 electric customers in seven states had already lost power.
Hundreds of thousands of people had abandoned their homes and apartments. New York City landmarks were eerily empty. The nation’s capital was emptied of government workers.
Forecasters said Sandy’s collision with a cold front once it makes landfall could create a “superstorm” that could generate flash floods, snowstorms and power outages from North Carolina to Maine.
The National Grid, which provides power to millions of customers, said 60 million people could be affected.
“It could be bad,” said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steven Rattior, “or it could be devastation.”
The predicted impact extends beyond the East Coast. Wave heights in Lake Michigan could reach 28 feet Monday night and 31 feet by Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.
This is coming eight days before Election Day, with the presidential candidates locked in a tight race, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, altered or canceled planned campaign events because of the storm.
Obama returned on Monday from Florida to Washington, where he told reporters at the White House that assets were in place for an effective response.
He urged those in the path of the storm to heed warnings and other instructions.
“The most important message I have for the public right now is please listen to what your state and local officials are saying,” Obama said. “When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate.”
Obama said he was not worried about how the storm might affect the election.
“I’m worried about the impact on families; I’m worried about the impact on first responders; I’m worried about the economy and transportation,” he told reporters. “The election will take care of itself next week.”
“There are families in harm’s way that will be hurt — either in their possessions or perhaps in something more severe,” Romney said.
The campaign canceled events that had been planned for later in the day and Tuesday for Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan.