Here Comes Hurricane Sandy: East Coast Scrambles

Eliza Shapiro on what to expect: evacuations, school closures—and a possible disruption to early voting.

Anxious hurricane-watchers were granted a few brief moments of relief early Saturday when Hurricane Sandy was downgraded to a tropical storm—only to be reclassified as a hurricane shortly after.

The latest tracking projections have shown no mercy, and so local and state governments are springing into action to prepare for “Frankenstorm”—a hurricane making its way up the East Coast, with a wind field extending 450 miles from its center, that is likely to collide with a separate winter storm. The terrifying combo is already being likened to the “perfect storm” of 1991.

In densely populated New York and New Jersey, which stand a good chance of getting socked, officials are urging residents to take Sandy seriously after Hurricane Irene amounted to little more than an unpleasant morning last year, despite massive power outages in suburbs across the Northeast.

“We should not underestimate the impact of this storm,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at a press conference Saturday afternoon. “People say the weathermen always get it wrong and we’re just going to hang out and not pay attention to this. Please don’t.”

Sandy is already blamed for the deaths of some 65 people in the Caribbean; winds of 75 miles per hour were felt 100 miles from the storm’s center. Airlines are encouraging travelers to cancel their flights and eliminating cancellation fees.

Cities across the coast of the Northeast are preparing for worst: Christie declared a statewide state of emergency ahead of Sandy, which is expected to make landfall in New Jersey as early as Sunday evening.

Christie also announced on Saturday that shelter locations were open across the state with capacity for 12,000 evacuees, and warned of possible widespread power outages across the state for as long as 7 to 10 days. A mandatory evacuation order is in effect for the New Jersey barrier islands, including casino haven Atlantic City.

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered New York City residents out of the city’s public parks starting Sunday, when wind gusts could down trees.

The MTA, New York's public transit system, will fully shut down at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced. City governments across the Northeast are also considering school closures on Monday and Tuesday.

But the impact of the storm may be felt beyond soggy trick-or-treating this Halloween: early voting in crucial states like Virginia and North Carolina is threatened just days ahead of Election Day on Nov. 6.

Government office closures are expected across Virginia, a virtual toss-up in the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney, on Monday, says Justin Riemar, deputy to the secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections. “We’re hoping for only a minimal disruption to the process, but if local governments close, we can’t continue absentee voting at that time.”

Early voting was suspended in at least three counties in North Carolina on Saturday and Sunday.

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Politicians across the Northeast—even those not trying to keep their jobs on Nov. 6—have been vigilant about storm preparedness.

After what was widely considered a fumble on Bloomberg’s part after the so-called Christmas Blizzard of 2010, the mayor ordered extra precautions for Hurricane Irene last summer. In his preparation for Sandy, Bloomberg has repeatedly referenced the city’s emergency apparatus for Irene. At a press conference on Friday, Bloomberg said, “I also want to say that whenever we’re faced with a tough situation, history shows New Yorkers always show courage, compassion, and presence of mind. We did that 14 months ago, during Hurricane Irene, and I’m completely confident we will do that again now.”

New Yorkers were busy battening down the hatches on Saturday morning. At a Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn Heights on Saturday morning, groceries and canned goods were being snatched from shelves by a wave of shoppers who waited in line outside the store just to begin shopping. “This is at least two or three times as crazy as a regular Saturday morning,” said Tiffany Wrenn, a manager of the store.

While shoppers remained cynical about the real damage the storm would bring, they quietly grabbed food from the emptying shelves—just in case. “I’m just doing regular Saturday shopping,” one mother declared cheerfully at Trader Joe’s. Then she lowered her voice: “But if I’m being honest, I got a few extra packs of bread. I mean, I have two kids! And yes, I bought some batteries.”