, NEW YORK, Oct 29 – Hurricane Sandy strengthened as it turned toward the US East Coast on Monday, bringing major cities from New York to Washington to a standstill amid warnings of life-threatening storm surges.
Sandy’s maximum sustained winds intensified to 85 miles per hour (140 kilometres per hour) overnight and at 1200 GMT it’s eye was located 260 miles southeast of the evacuated gambling haven of Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“One of the biggest storms of our lifetimes is unfolding right now,” said anchor Kelly Cass as The Weather Channel began its fourth day of nonstop coverage.
The weather disrupted the US election campaign, with President Barack Obama cancelling an appearance in the battleground state of Florida, returning instead to the White House to steer a huge government relief effort.
With just eight days until the election, both Democrat Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney are conscious of the need to stay on top of public sentiment regarding the storm, given the memory of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The handling of Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, by then president George W. Bush was widely seen as bungled and the failure of authorities in the ensuing emergency response tainted his presidency.
Obama ditched plans to appear with ex-president Bill Clinton in Orlando, as families faced the prospect of damage from snapping trees, severe flooding and power outages, including in some key swing states such as Virginia.
Forecasters warned that New York Harbour and the Long Island Sound could see seawater surges of up to 11 feet (more than three meters) above normal levels, coinciding with high tides due to the full moon.
All public schools in New York and Washington were closed and workers stayed at home as a massive public transport shutdown left the streets quiet ahead of the storm’s anticipated landfall later Monday or early Tuesday.
The 16-person crew of HMS Bounty, a replica of the three-mast vessel on which a famous mutiny took place in 1789, were forced to abandoned ship after it started to take on water.
The sailors donned cold-water survival suits and life jackets before launching in two 25-man lifeboats with canopies after getting caught up in stormy waters 90 miles (144 kilometres) southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina.
Fourteen of the crew were hoisted to safety but two were still missing, the coastguard said.