While the storm continued to lash the Bahamas with heavy rains and high waves Friday, forecasters were looking ahead to Tuesday, when the storm could collide with a seasonal “nor’easter” weather system, super-charging it while drawing it west onto land.
Meteorologists, who have nicknamed this unusual confluence of weather patterns a “Frankenstorm,” said the impact in the US could exceed that of Irene, which killed 47 people when it blasted the eastern US seaboard in August 2011.
“Compared to Irene, we expect much broader surge impacts. Same thing with the wind,” said James Franklin, branch chief of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center during a telephone press conference Friday.
”In Irene, large portions didn’t have thunderstorms, so winds didn’t come down. That’s not going to happen here,” he added, explaining that Sandy will be a more wintry storm, with “a very, very large area with a more uniform wind field.”
Louis Uccellini, director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, warned Sandy could also be more powerful than the so-called “Perfect Storm” in October 1991 that killed 13 people.
Sandy is starting out as a more powerful tropical system, he noted, and “in the ‘Perfect Storm,’ the snow event stayed separate” while Sandy is predicted to merge with the cold weather systems.
In the latest bulletin at 1800 GMT, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center placed Sandy just north of Great Abaco Island, in the Bahamas, which was still bearing the brunt of the storm.
The Caribbean island chain reported power and phone lines downed, tourists stranded and trees uprooted. Schools, government offices, airports and bridges were to remain closed Friday.
The storm was downgraded late Thursday to a category one hurricane on the five-point Saffir-Simpson wind scale, and the latest report had Sandy packing sustained winds of 75 miles (120 kilometers) per hour.
Although weakened, storm gusts and high waves were reported in south Florida as Sandy churned north.
NHC forecasters said the storm was likely to make landfall early Tuesday, anywhere from south of Delaware up through northern New England, with climate models unable to be more precise four days out.
That puts the storm on track to hit during the frenzied final week of campaigning before the November 6 US presidential vote.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced Friday he was scrapping a rally in Virginia Beach because of the storm, the first of what may be several disruptions to the presidential race’s final 10-day sprint.
A day earlier, the White House declined to speculate on whether Sandy would affect President Barack Obama’s campaigning plans, saying the storm’s path was still uncertain.
Concern is mounting that storm damage and power outages could have a major impact on voter turnout, polling station readiness, and last-minute campaigning by Romney and Obama.
The White House said Obama was briefed Friday on storm preparations by the directors of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the NHC and by his Homeland Security advisor.
The statement said he directed FEMA administrator Craig Fugage “to ensure that all available federal resources are being brought to bear to support state and local responders in potentially affected areas.”
US agencies, from the FEMA to the Pentagon and the Coast Guard, were mobilising resources and manpower and urging those along the hurricane’s projected path to prepare for possible power outages, flooding and evacuations.
The storm is predicted to douse the entire eastern US, from the Carolinas up through southern New England, with up to 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain.
It could also dump up to two feet of snow in the Appalachian mountain areas of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Because the storm is slow-moving, the storm’s effects will likely last over several days and lead to widespread power outages, Franklin said.
Massive tidal surges are likely where the storm center passes and could lead to major flooding in coastal areas and along rivers. Exacerbating the impact is the fact Sandy is hitting during a full moon, when tides are typically already at their highest.
“The potential is there for a significant storm,” WCNC-TV chief meteorologist Brad Panovich in Charlotte, North Carolina wrote on Facebook.
“This system is one part hurricane, one part nor’easter and one part blizzard, potentially. Impacts of all three types of storms are possible depending on location.”
Sandy earlier claimed 11 lives in eastern Cuba, including several who died in the rubble of buildings that collapsed in the fury of the massive storm.
The hurricane damaged hundreds of homes, flooding crops and downing trees, according to media reports.
“It was terrible. Roofs were flying off lots of houses. Doors too, and windows,” said Laquesis Bravo, 36, who lives outside the southeastern coastal city of Santiago de Cuba.
On Wednesday, Sandy unleashed its wrath on Jamaica, where one person died, and on Haiti, where 16 people died.