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‘Superstorm’ scenario puts millions from North Carolina to Maine on alert

Posted at 11:06 AM, Oct 28, 2012
and last updated 2012-10-28 11:08:04-04

By Chelsea J. Carter and Greg Botelho, CNN

(CNN) – Drew Wojtkowski is playing the odds with Hurricane Sandy, with a plan to ride out the massive storm on Sunday at his oceanfront home on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Yes, he’s stocked up with extra supplies. Yes, he’s keeping an eye on the rising water levels, particularly on North Carolina 12 — the state highway that links the Outer Banks with the outside world.

“If that washes out and water rises, then there’s no way to get off,” he told CNN affiliate WRAL on Saturday.

Hours later, Sandy’s storm surge washed out the highway in a number of locations, stranding Wojtkowski and others.

Even as millions of people in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast prepare for the storm’s arrival, with thousands evacuating, Wojtkowski and his wife are believed to be among a number of residents hunkering down along the 200-mile stretch of barrier islands.

“This is just the inconvenience of living by the ocean,” Wojtkowski said.

Hurricane Sandy has proven to be deadly, with officials blaming the storm for at least 45 deaths. That figure includes 29 people in Haiti, with four more reported missing. Another 16 were dead in Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

By Sunday morning, the Outer Banks were feeling Sandy’s wrath as a mix of heavy rain and strong winds lashed the islands.

At 11 a.m. E.T., the National Hurricane Center put the storm at about 250 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Sandy was moving at about 14 mph with 75 mph maximum sustained winds.

Local and state officials along the East Coast have joined meteorologists in trumpeting the storm’s potential breadth and impact, especially if it collides with a cold front from the West to create a “superstorm” that stalls over the Eastern Seaboard for days.

“This is nothing to play with, and this is nothing to take lightly. So take it seriously. I know that we are,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday as he announced the planned shutdown of subway, bus and commuter rail service as the storm nears Sunday night.

Computer models predict portions of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia could see up to a foot of rain. And even though it’s still October, communities in and around the Appalachian Mountains could be socked by heavy snow.

The rush to stay ahead of the storm hit Richard Heilman’s Ace Hardware store in Virginia City, where the shelves were nearly emptied by people in a rush to snatch up supplies.

If the emphatic warnings from officials weren’t enough, fresh memories of recent long stretches without power over the past year or so — including a devastating and deadly storm system this summer that left millions in the dark for about a week — have spurred many to get out and not be caught flat-footed.

“People are a little bit more, ‘hey, maybe I should go get my batteries now instead of waiting until they’re all gone,'” Heilman said.

For some, simply stocking up is not enough.

Residents of New Jersey’s barrier islands, from Sandy Hook south to Cape May, were ordered to evacuate by Sunday afternoon, as were people at Atlantic City casinos.

“I would much rather people stay in their homes,” said Gov. Chris Christie, who issued the order Saturday. “But the fact of the matter is, if we’re looking at hurricane force winds on the barrier islands sustained for 24 hours or more, it is simply unsafe for people to be there.”

Carol Elliott said she was concerned, but won’t be leaving her North Wildwood home — because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

Others, though, planned to abide by the order — and keep their fingers crossed that Sandy doesn’t prove to be as fierce as feared.

“I’m heeding the warning and we’re going,” Cheryl Nolan told CNN affiliate WKYW. “And I’m hoping that I have a house when I come back.”

Forecasters are still trying to pinpoint where Sandy will have its biggest impact when it finally does come entirely over land. Computer models show it striking somewhere along a roughly 700-mile stretch — from North Carolina to as far north as Connecticut.

Its potential merger with the cold front could “energize this system” and make it more powerful, said Louis Uccellini, who is responsible for environmental prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Such a scenario is not unlike the weather system that led to 1991’s “Perfect Storm,” when moisture flung north by Hurricane Grace combined with a high pressure system and a cold front to produce a tempest in the north Atlantic during Halloween. But Grace never made landfall.

It won’t be until late Sunday, and in some cases Monday, when the Category 1 hurricane makes its full impact known on the United States.

By then, Wojtkowski and others in the Outer Banks will be starting the storm cleanup.

CNN’s George Howell, Athena Jones, Shawn Nottingham and Joe Sutton contributed to this report.