WASHINGTON — Hurricane Sandy chugged toward the East Coast on Sunday with such enormous size and force that public officials warned of the potential for widespread destruction and disruption for tens of millions of people in its path.
From North Carolina to coastal Maine, public officials urged residents to fortify themselves against a storm system expected to unleash torrential rains and winds of up to 75 mph more than 100 miles from the storm’s center.
Forecasters warned that the New York area could get an 11-foot wall of water.
They said the hurricane could blow ashore late today or early Tuesday along the New Jersey coast, then cut across into Pennsylvania.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers tips on how to prepare for Hurricane Sandy and other tropical storms. Sandy is expected to be especially disastrous when it merges with a winter storm system, bringing powerful winds, rain, snow, and storm surge.
Before the hurricane:
■ Know your surroundings and whether your home is in a flood-prone area.Determine
where you would go — and how you would get there — if you were ordered to evacuate.
■ Cover your home’s windows, either with permanent storm shutters or marine plywood at least 5/8 of an inch thick.
■ Be sure trees and shrubs around your home are well-trimmed.
■ Clear clogged rain gutters.
■ Secure all outdoor furniture, decorations, trash cans, and anything else that could blow away.
■ Install a generator.
■ Listen to the radio or TV for information.
■ Turn off propane tanks.
■ Avoid using the phone.
■ Ensure a supply of water for sanitary purposes.
■ Stay indoors and away from windows and glass doors.
■ Drive into low-lying areas or over roads and bridges that are already under water.
If evacuating, bring:
■ Driver’s license
■ Credit card information
■ Birth certificates
■ Social Security cards
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 will be closed today. Boston also called off school.
All nonessential government offices closed in the nation’s capital.
As rain from the leading edges of the 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, 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 Sunday evening, was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began traveling north, parallel to the East Coast. It was expected to hook inland 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 in coastal areas, and punishing winds that could cause widespread power outages that last for days.
The storm could dump up to 2 feet of snow in Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia.
Louis Uccellini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 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 Gov. Chris Christie said, “Don’t be stupid. Get out.”
New York 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 but continue to trade electronically.
In Washington, President Obama promised the government would “respond big and respond fast” after the storm hits.
“My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules,” he said.
Two computer-tracking systems agreed that the hurricane would arrive on shore between the Delmarva Peninsula and Rhode Island.
But Sandy’s reach will extend as far as 450 miles from its core.
Federal officials said they expect the storm to create damaging conditions across a vast and densely populated portion of the United States, from Virginia to New England, and as far west as the Great Lakes.
“We need to make sure people understand that this is going to go well inland,” said Craig Fugate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “This is not a coastal threat alone.”
FEMA officials said they were uncertain which areas would be the most ravaged.
The hurricane is expected to lose intensity before it merges with a separate storm system in the northeast.
Yet Sandy’s breadth makes its precise path almost irrelevant.
In Ohio, the National Weather Service warned people living in low-lying areas and along the Lake Erie shoreline to watch for flooding early in the week.
High wind warnings for gusts up to 65 mph have been posted across parts of Ohio, threatening utility lines and trees.
Rain is forecast through midweek.