Officials ready for Hurricane Sandy – Obama

President Barack Obama said he is confident that emergency crews are prepared to tackle the storm.

United States President Barack Obama. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said the U.S. public needs to prepare for Hurricane Sandy to make landfall on Monday evening and predicted millions of people will be affected by the storm.

"This is going to be a big and powerful storm and all across the Eastern Seaboard I think everybody is taking the appropriate preparations," he told reporters after having a briefing on the storm in the White House Situation Room.

Obama said those in the region affected by the Hurricane should listen to local and state officials on whether or not to evacuate, and expressed confidence that emergency crews are prepared to tackle the storm preparations and clean-up that will be needed in the coming days.

Hurricane Sandy began battering the U.S. East Coast on Monday with fierce winds and driving rain, as the monster storm shut down transportation, shuttered businesses and sent thousands scrambling for higher ground hours before the worst was due to strike.

About 50 million people from the Mid-Atlantic to Canada were in the path of the nearly 1,000-mile-wide (1,600-km-wide) storm, which forecasters said could be the largest to hit the mainland in U.S. history. It was expected to topple trees, damage buildings, cause power outages and trigger heavy flooding.

State governors warned of the acute danger from the winds and torrential rains. "There will undoubtedly be some deaths that are caused by the intensity of this storm, by the floods, by the tidal surge, by the waves.

The more responsibly citizens act, the fewer people will die," Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley told reporters.

The U.S. stock market suffered its first weather-related closure in 27 years and many schools and businesses were closed in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

While the center of the storm was not expected to make landfall until Monday night near Atlantic City, New Jersey, it was already creating dangerous conditions and forcing rescue workers into action.

Off North Carolina, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 14 of the 16 crew members who abandoned the replica tall ship HMS Bounty, using helicopters to lift them from life rafts. The Coast Guard continued to search for the two missing crew members about 160 miles from the eye of the storm.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the Category 1 storm had strengthened as it turned toward the coast and was moving at 18 miles per hour (30 km per hour). It was expected to bring a "life-threatening storm surge," coastal hurricane winds and heavy snow in the Appalachian Mountains, the NHC said.

Forecasters said Sandy was a rare, hybrid "super storm" created by an Arctic jet stream wrapping itself around a tropical storm.

Nine U.S. states have declared a state of emergency.

With the election eight days away, President Barack Obama canceled a campaign event in Florida on Monday in order to return to Washington and monitor the U.S. government's response to the storm.

"This is a serious and big storm," Obama said on Sunday after a briefing at the federal government's storm response center in Washington. "We don't yet know where it's going to hit, where we're going to see the biggest impacts.

Sandy killed 66 people in the Caribbean last week before pounding U.S. coastal areas as it moved north.

While Sandy does not pack the punch of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, it could become more potent as it approaches the U.S. coast.

Winds were at a maximum of 90 mph, the NHC said in its 11 a.m. (1500 GMT) report, up from 75 mph nine hours earlier. It said tropical storm-force winds reached as far as 485 miles from the center.

Several feet of water flooded streets in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which could be right in the target zone of the storm.

Local residents said police knocked on doors on Sunday, reminding everyone there was a mandatory evacuation. While the police took names, they allowed residents to stay at their own risk.

"If power goes that's a problem," said John Brunhammer, 40, a recruiter from Lewes, Delaware, who had come to see the waves crashing up to the dune line at Rehoboth Beach. "This area isn't known for prompt utility service."

New York and other cities and towns closed their transit systems and ordered mass evacuations from low-lying areas ahead of a storm surge that could reach as high as 11 feet.

By early Monday, water was already topping the seawall in Manhattan's Battery Park City, one of the areas evacuated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

All U.S. stock markets will be closed on Monday and possibly Tuesday, the operator of the New York Stock Exchange said late on Sunday, reversing an earlier plan that would have kept electronic trading going on Monday.

The United Nations, Broadway theaters and New Jersey casinos were forced to close, and more than two-thirds of the East Coast's oil refining capacity was in the process of shutting down.