Emergency managers up and down the East Coast are bracing for Hurricane Sandy, a rare storm that forecasters say could bring damaging rain, winds and even snow to the mid-Atlantic and New England next week.
The storm's maximum wind speeds reached 105 mph yesterday afternoon, as it moved through the central Bahamas as a Category 2 hurricane.
Experts say Sandy is likely to mix with a winter storm now moving west, producing a nasty hybrid that government forecasters have dubbed a "Frankenstorm."
"This one has the potential of doing what Hurricane Irene did and dumping a tremendous amount of water, but also doing the kinds of damage we worry about with coastal flooding and very high winds," said Paul Kocin, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It has all the elements of a very significant hurricane as well as a very significant coastal storm."
It's a relatively rare phenomenon that can be dangerous and devastating, he said.
"In some instances, it can actually produce a storm that's historic in nature, which happened during the hurricane of 1938 across Long Island. It also happened during Hurricane Hazel in 1954 across the Southeastern and mid-Atlantic states."
Many experts, including Kocin, say Sandy could cause at least $1 billion in damage.
"There are these hybrid storms that sometimes can produce a bigger bang for the buck than had they occurred as one or the other," he said. "It becomes more like a giant nor'easter, but possibly with an intensity not seen with most nor'easters, which is why this one" -- Sandy -- "has a potential to be particularly dangerous."
Its destructive potential could be magnified by Monday's full moon, which will bring high tides.
The latest model projections show Sandy remaining offshore as it moves north this weekend, before turning to the west Monday.
Point of landfall remains unknown
However, they differ on where, exactly, Sandy will make landfall. NOAA's latest projection shows the storm hitting the New Jersey coast Tuesday afternoon. Other models suggest Sandy could make landfall along the southern Delmarva coast Monday or near Long Island late Tuesday night.
"Probably the worst-case scenario for New York City would be if the storm actually comes ashore just south of the city, across central and northern New Jersey," Kocin said. "It might produce a rare combination of very high tides and strong winds."
But wherever Sandy makes landfall, it is likely to bring high winds and heavy rains, with snow possible in the Upper Ohio Valley and central Appalachians, NOAA's Hydrometeorological Prediction Center said yesterday afternoon.
"Some models say it will be a slow mover. Others say it will be slow on approach and then take off after that," said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen. "We just want folks paying attention to it."
The National Hurricane Center said yesterday that Sandy was likely to dump 6 to 12 inches of rain on Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with some areas receiving up to 20 inches. Flash floods and mudslides are possible.
The Bahamas could receive 3 to 6 inches of rain, and southeastern Florida, including the Florida Keys, is likely to receive 1 to 3 inches. Storm surge of 5 to 8 feet in the Bahamas and 1 to 2 feet along the southern Florida coast is likely, the hurricane center said.
President Obama was briefed on the storm yesterday afternoon aboard Air Force One, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, emergency management departments from Florida to New England are urging residents to keep a close eye on Sandy as it heads north.
New England braces for 'significant impacts'
"National Weather Service now has a high degree of confidence that New England will experience significant impacts from Sandy regardless of the location of the landfall," the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency said in a bulletin released late yesterday afternoon. "With landfall south of New England, Massachusetts is still likely to sustain significant impacts from this storm including damaging winds, associated power outages, and freshwater and coastal flooding."
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has activated the city's coastal storm plan, which it also relied on last year when Hurricane Irene struck, evacuating some low-lying parts of the city and shutting down its subway system.
"If this [Sandy] merges with another storm coming from the Ohio Valley, it has the potential to give you real weird weather, like snow, and a lot of rain and high winds," Bloomberg told TV station NY1 yesterday. "On the other hand, it might just go out to sea, and they just don't know. What we are doing is we are taking the kind of precautions you'd expect us to do, and I don't think anybody should panic."
During the past 161 years, just three hurricanes have passed within 200 miles of New York City during the month of October, according to National Hurricane Center records. The last time it happened was October 1894.
But the region has been slammed by its share of strong storms since then, including Irene, which caused an estimated $15.8 billion in damage as it traveled up the East Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center.
As climate change intensifies, the frequency of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes -- categories 4 and 5 -- could double even as the total number of storms drops, according to a study published two years ago in the journal Science.
But a more immediate worry for communities in Sandy's path, forecasters said, will be power loss. The combination of heavy rain, high winds and trees still laden with leaves could spell trouble for power companies, Feltgen said.
"There are a lot of leaves on the trees right now, so the first thing that could go would be the power," he said.