Officials on Sunday implored residents of the Washington area to use common sense and respect nature’s will as Hurricane Sandy steered toward its clash with wintry weather from the north.
What has been called an unprecedented weather event closed schools and government offices and left people up and down the East Coast preparing for power outages and collapsed roofs before a single raindrop fell.
Sandy was headed north from the Caribbean, where it killed more than five dozen people, and was expected to hook west toward the mid-Atlantic coast and come ashore late Monday or early Tuesday, most likely in New Jersey, colliding with a storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic. The series of events has created a potentially devastating mix that could affect the lives of 50 million people from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, forecasters said.
“Let me be clear — this storm is unique, large, dangerous and unlike anything our region has experienced in a very long time,” D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Sunday at the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency headquarters.
President Obama traveled the nearly three miles from the White House to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters for a briefing by agency officials and a conference call with governors from states in the storm’s path. The president pledged federal aid to states affected by the storm.
“My message to the governors, as well as to the mayors, is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules,” he said.
Later Sunday, he declared a state of emergency in the District, as had been requested by city leaders.
New York City announced the closings of its mass-transit and school systems, both the nation’s largest, and ordered some 375,000 residents to leave low-lying areas ahead of the massive storm approaching the eastern third of the U.S.
Broadway took the threat of the mammoth storm seriously, with many theater owners canceling Sunday evening shows.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie’s emergency declaration will force the shutdown of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos for the fourth time in the city’s 34-year history of legalized gambling. Officials said they would begin evacuating Atlantic City’s 30,000 residents at noon Sunday, busing them to inland shelters and schools.
For Monday, nearly 4,000 flights were canceled.
Amtrak said it was canceling all service north of New York at 7 p.m. Sunday. Nearly all service across the Eastern Seaboard will be canceled beginning Monday.
In the D.C. area, Metro announced closures of its rail and bus systems after the completion of Sunday service until further notice. The transit system reported that it placed sandbags around its tunnels and stations. Both the Maryland Transit Administration and Virginia Railway Express announced Sunday that their commuter-rail trains would not run Monday.
r. Gray and emergency officials have not imposed any curfews or restrictions on movement around the city.
However, D.C. officials asked residents to stay in low levels of their homes to avoid falling trees or heavy branches and to stockpile enough supplies to sustain themselves for 72 hours without power.
The storm is expected to hit the capital region the hardest between 8 a.m. Monday and 8 a.m. Tuesday, dumping 4 to 8 inches of rain at rates of up to 2 inches per hour, Mr. Gray said.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley issued similar warnings to people in his state ahead of the massive “killer storm.”
“It’s very, very important that everybody be vigilant,” Mr. O'Malley said at a Sunday afternoon news conference from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Reisterstown. “Be prepared for your own family with flashlights, radio, things you will need for extended days of a power outage for many, many Maryland families.”
Mr. O’Malley noted that Mr. Obama had declared the state a disaster area and that some low-lying areas of the state, including downtown Ocean City, had begun mandatory or optional evacuations. Mr. Gray issued a similar request for assistance.
In Virginia, residents along coastal areas were feeling the brunt of the storm by midday Sunday.
Gov. Bob McDonnell said forecasts have borne out to be mostly accurate, with 5 to 7 inches of rain and sustained winds of 40 to 45 mph expected through Tuesday.
“It’s going to get a lot worse than it is now in the next couple of days, especially in Northern Virginia on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday,” he said at a Sunday afternoon news conference.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management announced late Sunday that federal offices in the D.C. area would be closed Monday, except for emergency employees. The D.C. and Maryland governments followed suit
Sunday evening. Leaders in Virginia said they would make an announcement later Sunday evening about whether their government offices would be closed Monday.
D.C. Public Schools will be closed Monday — so no special-education buses will run — and Mr. Gray encouraged the city’s public charter schools to follow suit. Alexandria and Arlington public schools also will be closed Monday.
Public schools in Montgomery County and Fairfax County will be closed Monday and Tuesday.
Test for utilities
The storm will be a critical test for power utilities across the region. Pepco, the oft-maligned electric utility that serves the District and thousands of Maryland customers, faced intense criticism in August 2011 after Hurricane Irene passed through and again in late June when a devastating derecho storm knocked out power for up to a week in some households. The incidents prompted Mr. Gray to form a task force that is exploring the best way to mitigate power outages in the nation’s capital, such as burying power lines in high-risk areas.
Pepco has secured 1,473 additional crew members from Southern states that will be less affected by the impending storm, region President Thomas N. Graham said Sunday.
The utility requested 3,700 additional crews, but demand for assistance is competitive because of the size of the looming storm. From an industrywide perspective, about 15,000 requests for additional resources have gone unfulfilled in the Eastern states, Mr. Graham said.
Mr. Graham said crews may not be able to being restoration efforts until Wednesday because of the sustained high winds expected Monday and Tuesday. He also advised customers to report outages and downed wires.
“Any wire that you see down should be considered live,” he said.
About 20,000 people in the Hampton Roads, Va., area experienced storm-related power outages by Sunday afternoon, although many of them had their power restored during the day, Mr. McDonnell said.
Dominion Virginia Power has an additional 2,000 people on standby to help with power outages across the state, Mr. McDonnell said.
The city of Alexandria offered sandbags to residents and businesses hoping to fend off rising water. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel pushed Potomac River water to historic levels, flooding Old Town’s cobblestone streets and even parts of the George Washington Parkway.
As he hauled sandbags to the front door of the Old Town restaurant where he works, Michael Solsberry said businesses could only do so much to defend against rising waters and high winds.
“Our window is 20-feet-by-20 feet,” Mr. Solsberry, 26, said. “There’s not a lot we can do to stop it if it’s coming down.”
In the District, Megan Baker, 32, rented a car Sunday to help carry the many bags of groceries she had purchased at the grocery store.
“I reverted back to my college years,” Ms. Baker, who lives in the H Street area of Northeast, said of her purchases. “Macaroni and cheese, potato chips, ramen noodles and beer.”
Ms. Baker said she also brought work home with her on Friday in anticipation of working remotely from the office on Monday.
Back in Alexandria, Shaquana Banks, 36, of Fort Lincoln, did not appear fazed by the mayhem at a Target store. Loading several bags into her car, Ms. Banks said she planned on purchasing only a few extra supplies ahead of the storm.
“I’m from the South, so I’m kind of used to hurricane anything,” she said. “I might pick up some extra flashlights and batteries, but all that other extra stuff? Meh.”
Despite reports that many grocery stores had run out of bottled water, Mitti Smith said the shelves were “overflowing” with bottled water at a Safeway in Northeast.
“I was surprised with me coming so late,” the 62-year-old said, noting her other supplies included “mostly sandwich meat, bread, milk and creamer for my coffee.”
George Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, said the city’s tap water will be safe to drink if the power goes out.
In the “highly unlikely” event that residents lose water pressure — the pumping stations have backup power — D.C. residents should save water in pitchers and fill their tubs with water so they could use it to flush their toilets, Mr. Hawkins said.
The storm is especially bearing down on the Eastern Seaboard’s voters, with little more than a week to go before the Nov. 6 presidential election.
The D.C. Board of Elections said it is monitoring the storm and would decide late Sunday whether to close early-voting stations Monday.
In Maryland, Mr. O'Malley canceled previously scheduled early voting on Monday and will make an announcement later on early voting scheduled for Tuesday. Hundreds of Marylanders lined up across the state to cast their ballots Saturday and Sunday, and Mr. O'Malley said it was important to keep that trend going.
Mr. McDonnell, whose state has much more limited pre-Election Day options, said he would work with local voter registrars to make sure that people who have permission to vote early in person have the chance to cast their ballots.
Asked whether the storm would have an impact on voting, Mr. Obama said, “We don’t anticipate that at this point, but we’re obviously going to have to take a look.”
⦁ Meredith Somers contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.