Hurricane Sandy has strengthened as it approaches the U.S. East Coast, putting 50 million people in the path of torrential rain, high winds and dangerous tidal surges from one of the largest storms to hit the region in years.
Major U.S. cities from Washington to New York came to a standstill Monday, with public transit systems suspended, airports shutting down and millions of people staying home from work. Sandy's maximum sustained winds intensified to 150 km per hour as it began a westward turn toward the U.S. mid-Atlantic Coast.
Forecasters said they expected the center of the storm to hit the southern part of the state of New Jersey early Monday evening. That is about 225 km south of New York City.
President Barack Obama canceled election campaign events to monitor the storm from the White House. He urged those in the storm's path to heed warnings about the dangerous nature of it.
"The most important message that I have for the public right now is please listen to what your state and local officials are saying," said Obama. "When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate. Do not delay, don't pause, don't question the instructions that are being given because this is a serious storm and it could potentially have fatal consequences if people haven't acted quickly."
Authorities in nine U.S. states and Washington D.C. declared states of emergency. U.S. federal government offices were closed.
U.S. Coast Guard helicopters rescued 14 crew members who abandoned a tall ship after it started to take on water off the coast of the state of North Carolina. The Coast Guard said it was searching for another two crew members who were missing from the HMS Bounty.
Forecasters said Sandy was expected to merge with a cold weather system, transforming it into a "superstorm" before it makes landfall. New York authorities ordered the evacuation of 375,000 people from low-lying parts of the city, whose major stock markets were closed in their first unplanned shutdown since the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks.
Officials said people who refuse to evacuate and later need to be rescued would be putting the lives of emergency workers at risk.
Sandy killed at least 65 people in the Caribbean last week before it moved toward the United States.