Hurricane Sandy gathered strength as it approached land last night, forcing mass evacuations across towns and cities along the American East Coast, with forecasters warning of potentially fatal conditions as it threatened to blow life off course for some 60 million people.
The National Hurricane Centre said Sandy was producing maximum sustained winds of 90mph by 11am local time on Monday, up from 75mph on Sunday night, as it barrelled in the direction of the southern New Jersey coast. But hours before it was due to strike land, the storm system had already sparked flooding in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Ocean City, Maryland.
The Long Island Sound, meanwhile, spilled over into towns along the shoreline in Connecticut, while the US Coastguard moved to rescue 14 crew members forced to abandon a ship about 90 miles off the North Carolina Coast. Light flooding was also reported in parts of New York City.
Elsewhere, tens of millions were told to hunker down across Delaware, Virginia, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and other states in the north-eastern US. Forecasters were also predicting heavy snow across the region.
A key risk, forecasters said, was from the record-breaking spread of the storm, with hurricane-force winds extending up to 175 miles from its centre.
Breaking away from the election campaign and assuming the role of commander in chief, President Obama warned that "millions of people are going to be affected" by Sandy. "The most important message I have for the public right now is 'Please listen to what your state and local officials are saying'," he said during an appearance at the White House. "When they tell you to evacuate, evacuate."
Preparing for the impact, officials had by yesterday morning ordered the evacuation of some 375,000 people in New York City, 50,000 in Delaware, and 30,000 in Atlantic City. Nearly 9,000 flights had been cancelled, and transit systems and rail links suspended, above. Power outages were also reported across New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island and parts of New York state. At least nine states, along with the District of Columbia, had declared emergencies.
Millions of school children were given a day off yesterday, while in New York the closure of the country's biggest urban transportation system was announced by Mayor Bloomberg.