SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. — Tens of thousands of residents were ordered to evacuate coastal areas Sunday as big cities and small towns across the Northeast buttoned up against the onslaught of a superstorm threatening some 50 million people in the most heavily populated corridor in the nation.
“The time for preparing and talking is about over,” Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate warned as a monster Hurricane Sandy headed up the Eastern Seaboard on a collision course with two other weather systems. “People need to be acting now.”
New York City and Philadelphia both announced subways, buses and trains would stop running Sunday night because of the risk of flooding, and New York said its 1.1 million-student school system would be closed on Monday. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also ordered the evacuation of part of lower Manhattan and other low-lying neighborhoods.
“If you don’t evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you,” he said. “This is a serious and dangerous storm.”
Tens of thousands of people along the coast in Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut and other threatened areas were also under orders to clear out because of the danger of as much as a foot of rain, punishing winds of 80 mph or higher and a potentially deadly wall of water 4 to 11 feet high. Communities opened shelter across the region.
Sandy was headed north from the Caribbean, where it left nearly five dozen people dead, and was expected to hook left toward the mid-Atlantic coast and come ashore late Monday or early Tuesday, most likely in New Jersey, colliding with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.
Forecasters warned that the resulting megastorm could wreak havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. Parts of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina could get snow — 2 feet or more in places.
Witlet Maceno, an emergency room nurse working at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, was headed home to Staten Island on Sunday morning after his overnight shift. He said he was going home to check on his parents, visiting from Atlanta, before he returned to work Sunday evening.
“I’m making sure they’re OK, that they have water and food, and that the windows are shut tight,” he said. “And I’m going to remove stuff outside that could go flying into the windows” of his street-level apartment.
The danger was hardly limited to coastal areas, with forecasters worried about inland flooding. They also warned that the rain could saturate the ground, causing trees to topple onto power lines and cause blackouts that could last for several days.
States of emergency were declared from North Carolina, where gusty winds whipped steady rain on Sunday morning, to Connecticut. Delaware ordered 50,000 people in coastal communities to clear out by 8 p.m. Sunday.
Officials in New York City were particularly worried about the possibility of subway flooding. The city closed the subways before Hurricane Irene last year, and a Columbia University study predicted that an Irene surge just 1 foot higher would have paralyzed lower Manhattan.
However, the New York Stock Exchange planned to open for trading as usual Monday, despite fears that flooding would damage the underground electrical network that is so vital to the nation’s financial center.
Sandy was at Category 1 strength, packing 75 mph winds, about 270 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving northeast at 14 mph as of 2 p.m. Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was about 575 miles south of New York City. But the storm was so big that forecasters could not say with any certainty which areas would get the worst of it.
Bobbie Foote said she would heed an evacuation order Sunday for south Wilmington, Del., and would take shelter at her daughter’s home in nearby Newark.