Hurricane Sandy is expected to affect between 50 million and 60 million people, emergency management and weather officials warned Saturday afternoon.
The storm will affect the eastern third of the country -- not just the coast -- and include inland flooding around Maryland and Pennsylvania and up to two feet of snow in West Virginia, said Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
"This is not just going to be a coastal event," said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center. "Virginia northward should prepare for weather to go downhill over the weekend."
Given its size and expected duration of two to three days, Hurricane Sandy could turn out to be comparable to 1991's Hurricane Grace, also known as the "Perfect Storm," and a cyclone that struck near the Appalachians in November of 1950, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said. But, Fugate said, officials don't try to make historical comparisons until after a storm hits.
Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency this morning in New Jersey and issued evacuation orders for South Jersey barrier islands by Sunday afternoon in preparation for Sandy, which is expected to make landfall in Delaware late Monday or early Tuesday and has already killed 43 people in the Caribbean.
He said he expects greater damage during this storm than in Hurricane Irene last year, because Sandy is expected to linger for 48 to 60 hours. The state will be lowering its reservoir and lake levels in hopes of minimizing flooding to nearby areas. PATH trains are already using sand bags and pumps to prevent flooding, and New Jersey Central Power and Light warns residents to expect outages for a week or more after Sandy hits.
"I think this could be more severe than Irene given some of the rain projections that they're giving us," he said. "We're going to be looking at some pretty significant damage to the shore."
Meteorologists downgraded Sandy from hurricane status this morning but upgraded it back to a hurricane a few hours later, after hurricane-force winds kicked up again.
"Air Force hurricane hunters have been out flying in and around the storm and they found that it's reintensified and it's gotten back to a hurricane with peak winds of about 75 miles per hour," National Hurricane Center meteorologist Chris Lancey said.
The Navy had initially ordered all ships to leave the port of Norfolk, Va., because of the storm, it has since canceled the order because the projected storm surge and winds aren't as bad as originally expected. The ships should be able to weather the storm in port, according to the Navy.
The storm is pounding Florida beaches today with 5- to 10-foot waves and is easily visible from space, stretching hundreds of miles across.
But soon, Sandy will meet up with a cold front coming from the northwest and a high pressure system from Greenland, fueling it with enough energy to make it more powerful than the "Perfect Storm," some meteorologists say.
"This storm that is going to be impacting the mid-Atlantic and parts of the Northeast ... is going to be destructive, historic, and unfortunately life threatening," AccuWeather's Bernie Rayno said.
Sandy will make its way up the coast before making landfall, which is now expected to be around southern New Jersey or Delaware, late Monday or early Tuesday. A 4- to 10-foot coastal surge is expected to affect areas from Washington, D.C., to New York, as bad or worse than Hurricane Irene, which caused $14 billion worth of damage in 2011.
"Certainly having lived through it, lost everything in my basement -- I had 10 feet of water in my house -- this is a concern," Staten Island resident Iris Baum said.
Communities all along the East Coast are building sand walls and stocking up on supplies to ready themselves for the monster storm. It could bring almost a foot of rain, high winds and up to two feet of snow.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned residents to brace themselves.
"There's the possibility of parts of our city flooding, or high winds that could force certain bridges to be closed," Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg made the unprecedented call to evacuate low-lying parts of the city and shut down the subway system before Irene hit last year. It is not clear whether he'll implement another shutdown for Sandy.
Even residents of central Pennsylvania and Connecticut are worried. As farmers hastened to move equipment to higher ground, politicians canceled public events and residents were cautioned to prepare for days without electricity.
"Be forewarned," Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. "Assume that you will be in the midst of flooding conditions, the likes of which you may not have seen at any of the major storms that have occurred over the last 30 years."
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.