ALLEN G. BREED
NEW YORK (AP) -- A fast-strengthening Hurricane Sandy churned north Monday, raking ghost-town cities along the Northeast corridor with rain and wind gusts. Subways and schools were closed across the region of 50 million people, the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was deserted, and thousands fled inland to await the storm's fury.
The monster hurricane was expected to make a westward lurch and aim for New Jersey, blowing ashore Monday night and combining with two other weather systems -- a wintry storm from the west and cold air rushing in from the Arctic -- to create an epic superstorm.
Authorities warned that New York City and Long Island could get the worst of the storm surge -- an 11-foot wall of seawater that could swamp lower Manhattan, flood the subways and cripple the underground network of electrical and communications lines that are vital to the nation's financial capital.
Because of Sandy's vast reach, with tropical storm-force winds extending almost 500 miles from its center, other major cities across the Northeast -- Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston -- also prepared for the worst.
"The days ahead are going to be very difficult," Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said. "There will be people who die and are killed in this storm."
By late morning, the storm had strengthened to 90 mph and had already knocked out power to tens of thousands of people. Sandy was about 200 miles southeast of Atlantic City, N.J., where the emptied-out streets were mostly under water and where an old section of the historic boardwalk broke up and washed away.
Authorities moved to close the Holland Tunnel, which connects New York and New Jersey, and a tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Street grates above the New York subway were boarded up, but officials worried that seawater would seep in and damage the electrical switches.
Millions of people in the storm's path stayed home from work. Subways, buses and trains shut down, and more than 7,000 flights in and out of the East were canceled, snarling travel around the globe. Hundreds of thousands of people were under orders to flee the coast, including 375,000 in lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City, but authorities warned that the time to get out was short or already past.
Sheila Gladden evacuated her home in Philadelphia's flood-prone Eastwick neighborhood and headed to a hotel.
"I'm not going through this again," said Gladden, who had 5 1/2 feet of water in her home after Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
"I think this one's going to do us in," said Mark Palazzolo, who boarded up his bait-and-tackle shop in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., with the same wood he used in past storms, crossing out the names of Hurricanes Isaac and Irene and spray-painting "Sandy" next to them.
"I got a call from a friend of mine from Florida last night who said, 'Mark, get out! If it's not the storm, it'll be the aftermath. People are going to be fighting in the streets over gasoline and food.'"
President Barack Obama declared emergencies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, authorizing federal relief work to begin well ahead of time. He promised the government would "respond big and respond fast" after the storm hits.
"My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape," Obama said. "We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules."
Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane, was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began traveling northward, parallel to the Eastern Seaboard. As of 11 a.m., it was moving at 18 mph, with hurricane-force winds extending an extraordinary 175 miles from its center.
Forecasters said the combined Frankenstorm could bring close to a foot of rain in places, a potentially lethal storm surge of 4 to 11 feet across much of the region, and punishing winds that could cause widespread power outages that last for days. Up to 3 feet of snow was forecast for the West Virginia mountains.
About 90 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members by helicopter from a replica of the 18th-century tall ship made famous in the movie "Mutiny on the Bounty." The Coast Guard searched for two other crew members.
The rescued had donned survival suits and life jackets and boarded two lifeboats after the ship began taking on water. They were plucked from 18-foot seas just before sunrise.