NEW YORK -- From Washington, D.C., to Boston, big cities and small towns Sunday buttoned up against the onslaught of a superstorm that could endanger 50 million people in the most heavily populated corridor in the nation, with forecasters warning that the New York City area could get the worst of it -- an 11-foot wall of water.
The time for preparing and talking is about over," Federal Emergency Management administrator Craig Fugate said as Hurricane Sandy made its way up the Atlantic on a collision course with two other weather systems that could turn it into one of the most fearsome storms on record in the U.S. "People need to be acting now."
Forecasters said the hurricane could blow ashore tonight or early Tuesday along the New Jersey coast, then cut across into Pennsylvania and travel up through New York state Wednesday
Airlines canceled more than 5,000 flights, and Amtrak began suspending train service across the Northeast. New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore moved to shut down their subways, buses and trains and said schools would be closed today. Boston also called off school. And all nonessential government offices closed in the nation's capital.
As rain from the leading edges of the monster hurricane began to fall over the Northeast, hundreds of thousands of people from Maryland to Connecticut were ordered to evacuate low-lying coastal areas, including 375,000 in lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City, 50,000 in Delaware and 30,000 in Atlantic City, N.J., where the city's 12 casinos were forced to shut down for only the fourth time ever.
Authorities warned that the nation's biggest city could get hit with a surge of seawater that could swamp parts of lower Manhattan, flood subway tunnels and cripple the network of electrical and communications lines that are vital to the nation's financial center.
Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 75 mph as of Sunday evening, was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began traveling northward, parallel to the Eastern Seaboard. As of 8 p.m., it was centered about 485 miles southeast of New York City, moving at 15 mph, with hurricane-force winds extending an incredible 175 miles from its center.
It was expected to hook inland during the day today, colliding with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.
Forecasters said the combination could bring close to a foot of rain in places, a potentially lethal storm surge of 4 to 11 feet across much of the region, and punishing winds that could cause widespread power outages that last for days. The storm could also dump up to 2 feet of snow in Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter declared states of emergencies. State office buildings in Philadelphia, city offices and Philadelphia schools were scheduled to be closed today. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania and several other local universities canceled classes for today and Tuesday.
Philadelphia's transit authority said it would shut down subways, commuter rail, buses and trolleys at about 12:30 a.m. today. The American Red Cross opened evacuation centers in the area, and Philadelphia residents descended on supermarkets and local stores to buy supplies to ride out the storm.
Peco Energy, Pennsylvania's largest electric and gas utility, and PPL Corp., which has 1.4 million customers in 29 counties, said they each have hundreds of line and tree-trimming crews lined up if necessary.
Peco spokeswoman Karen Muldoon Geus said she expects some customers to be without electricity for several days and that shutting down power to certain areas is likely in sections with heavy flooding. The utility will also have trailers with response crews in flood-prone areas to quickly turn off gas service where necessary.
Emergency management officials said that although flooding might not be as bad as in recent storms, they were very concerned about winds that could cause significant damage and sustained power outages.
"This has the potential to really be a historic storm in terms of impact here in Pennsylvania," Ruth Miller, a Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman, said. "We expect a lot of trees and power lines to be down."
Louis Uccellini, environmental prediction chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press that given Sandy's east-to-west track into New Jersey, the worst of the storm surge could be just to the north, in New York City, on Long Island and in northern New Jersey.
Forecasters said that because of giant waves and high tides made worse by a full moon, the metropolitan area of about 20 million people could get hit with an 11-foot wall of water.
"This is the worst-case scenario," Mr. Uccellini said.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned: "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. This is a serious and dangerous storm."
New Jersey's famously blunt Gov. Chris Christie was less polite: "Don't be stupid. Get out."
New York City called off school today for the city's 1.1 million students and announced it would suspend all train, bus and subway service Sunday night. More than 5 million riders a day depend on the transit system. The New York Stock Exchange announced it will shut down its trading floor today but continue to trade electronically.
In Washington, President Barack Obama promised that the federal government would "respond big and respond fast" after the storm hits.
He also pleaded for neighborliness: "In times like this, one of the things that Americans do is we pull together and we help out one another. And so, there may be elderly populations in your area. Check on your neighbor, check on your friend. Make sure that they are prepared. If we do, then we're going to get through this storm just fine."
Despite the dire warnings, some souls were refusing to budge.
Jonas Clark of Manchester Township, N.J. -- right in the area where Sandy was projected to come ashore -- stood outside a convenience store, sipping a coffee and wondering why people were working themselves "into a tizzy."
"I've seen a lot of major storms in my time, and there's nothing you can do but take reasonable precautions and ride out things the best you can," said Mr. Clark, 73. "Nature's going to do what it's going to do. It's great that there's so much information out there about what you can do to protect yourself and your home, but it all boils down basically to 'use your common sense.' "
In New Jersey, Denise Faulkner and her boyfriend showed up at the Atlantic City Convention Center with her 7-month-old daughter and two sons, ages 3 and 12, thinking there was a shelter there. She was dismayed to learn that it was just a gathering point for buses to somewhere else. Last year, they were out of their home for two days because of Hurricane Irene.
"I'm real overwhelmed," she said as baby Zahiriah, wrapped in a pink blanket with embroidered elephants, slept in a car seat.