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Megastorm will churn Lake Michigan, cause Chicago headaches

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Updated: October 28, 2012 7:16PM



Tens of millions of people in the path of an unprecedented freak storm taking aim at the eastern third of the United States prepared Sunday for the first raindrops, to be followed over the next few days by sheets of rain, high winds and even heavy snow.

Even the Chicago area could see some impact from Hurricane Sandy, although nothing like the force it is likely to exert along an 800-mile stretch inland from the Atlantic coast.

On the East Coast, shelters opened and 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.

New York City announced its subways, buses and trains would stop running Sunday night because of the danger of flooding, and 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.”

In Chicago Sunday afternoon, joggers and bicyclists battled whipping winds and scrambled to avoid water as it crashed on to the lakefront path Sunday afternoon near Oak Street Beach.

The main effect in the Chicago area could be flooding along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The National Weather Service posted a lakeshore flood watch to take effect late Monday, when it said waves could quickly build to 15 feet to 20 feet.

Weather service meteorologist Amy Seeley said the flood concern stems not from rain, but from winds on the fringe on the hurricane. She said the only Sandy-related precipitation the region could see will be some showers in northwest Indiana around midweek.

The larger concern is northerly winds of around 60 miles per hour expected to churn Lake Michigan waters starting Monday and continuing for around 48 hours. The weather service said winds probably will reach gale- or storm-force and that by Tuesday night, some waves could be 33 feet.

What happens will depend on where Sandy makes landfall and how it interacts with other systems, Seeley said.

Mariners without the proper experience or equipment should stay on land, forecasters said. The waves will batter beaches and are expected to cause shoreline erosion.

Flooding could occur on Lake Shore Drive and on the lakefront bicycle and pedestrian path.

Sandy was headed north from the Caribbean, where it left nearly five dozen dead, to meet a winter storm and a cold front, plus high tides from a full moon. Experts called it a rare hybrid storm and said anyone in its direct path should be prepared and get out of the way.

“I’ve been here since 1997, and I never even put my barbecue grill away during a storm,” Russ Linke said shortly before he and his wife left Ship Bottom, N.J., on Saturday. “But I am taking this one seriously. They say it might hit here. That’s about as serious as it can get.”

He and his wife secured the patio furniture, packed the bicycles into the pickup truck, and headed off the island.

The danger was hardly limited to coastal areas. Forecasters were far more worried about inland flooding from storm surge than they were about winds. Rains could saturate the ground, causing trees to topple into power lines, utility officials said, warning residents to prepare for several days at home without power.

States of emergency were declared from North Carolina, where steady rains were whipped by gusting winds Saturday night, to Connecticut. Delaware ordered mandatory evacuations for coastal communities by 8 p.m. Sunday.

Officials were particularly worried about the possibility of subway flooding in New York City, said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sandy was at Category 1 strength, packing 75 mph winds, about 260 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., and moving northeast at 10 mph as of 8 a.m. Sunday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. It was about 395 miles south of New York City.

The storm was expected to continue moving parallel to the Southeast coast most of the day and approach the coast of the mid-Atlantic states by Monday night, before reaching southern New England later in the week.

The storm was so big, however, and the convergence of the three storms so rare, that “we just can’t pinpoint who is going to get the worst of it,” said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

“You never want to be too naive, but ultimately, it’s not in our hands anyway,” said Andrew Ferencsik, 31, as he purchased plywood and 2-by-4 lumber from a Home Depot in Lewes, Del.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was criticized for not interrupting a vacation in Florida while a snowstorm pummeled the state in 2010, broke off campaigning for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in North Carolina on Friday to return home.

“I can be as cynical as anyone,” said Christie, who declared a state of emergency Saturday. “But when the storm comes, if it’s as bad as they’re predicting, you’re going to wish you weren’t as cynical as you otherwise might have been.”

Up and down the Eastern Seaboard and far inland, officials urged residents and businesses to prepare in ways big and small.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to prepare to shut the New York City’s subways, buses and suburban trains. 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.

Amtrak began canceling train service Saturday night to parts of the East Coast, including between Washington and New York. Airlines started moving planes out of airports to avoid damage and adding Sunday flights out of New York and Washington in preparation for flight cancellations on Monday.

The Virginia National Guard was authorized to call up to 500 troops to active duty for debris removal and road clearing, while homeowners stacked sandbags at their front doors in coastal towns.

President Barack Obama was monitoring the storm and working with state and locals governments to make sure they get the resources needed to prepare, administration officials said.

In North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a group of about 20 people was forced to wait out the storm on Portsmouth Island, a former fishing village that is now uninhabited and accessible only by private ferry.

“We tried to get off the island and the ferry service shut down on us,” said Bill Rowley, 49, of Rocky Mount, N.C.

Rowley said he could see 15-foot seas breaking over the island’s dunes, enough to bring water to the island’s interior.

“We’ll be inundated and it’ll probably be worse tomorrow,” he said.

In New Jersey, hundreds of coastal residents started moving inland. Christie’s emergency declaration will force the shutdown of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos for only the fourth time in the 34-year history of legalized gambling here. City officials said they would begin evacuating the gambling hub’s 30,000 residents at noon Sunday, busing them to mainland shelters and schools.

The storm also forced the presidential campaign to juggle schedules. Romney scrapped plans to campaign Sunday in Virginia and switched his schedule for the day to Ohio. First lady Michelle Obama canceled an appearance in New Hampshire for Tuesday, and Obama moved a planned Monday departure for Florida to Sunday night to beat the storm. He also canceled appearances in Northern Virginia on Monday and Colorado on Tuesday.

Eighty-five-year-old former sailor Ray Leonard had a bit of advice for those in the path of the storm. Leonard and two crewmates in his 32-foot sailboat, Satori, rode out 1991’s infamous “perfect storm,” made famous by the Sebastian Junger best-selling book of the same name, before being plucked from the Atlantic off Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., by a Coast Guard helicopter.

“Don’t be rash,” Leonard said Saturday from his home in Fort Myers, Fla. “Because if this does hit, you’re going to lose all those little things you’ve spent the last 20 years feeling good about.”

Contributing: AP, Staff Reporters David Roeder, Mitch Dudek



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