'Frankenstorm' Sandy Churns Toward East Coast

Robert Siegel and Audie Cornish check in with Jeff Brady, who monitored coastal conditions and official briefings in Cape May, N.J. They also talk to Margot Adler in New York City. Science Correspondent Joe Palca talks about the storm's strength and direction, as well as some of the unusual characteristics that have inspired the nickname "Frankenstorm."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with Sandy, the massive storm that's now technically no longer a hurricane. It's been redefined, but it is still pummeling the Eastern Seaboard with wind and driving rain. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center had this warning about Sandy's rainfall potential.

RICK KNABB: Hopefully not more than one foot, but it could certainly be more than a foot in some places, several inches, six to eight in many spots, isolated up to 12 or more.

CORNISH: It's difficult to overstate Sandy's power - its damaging winds cover a diameter of roughly 1,000 miles with gusts reaching 85 miles per hour. A state of emergency has been declared in 12 states plus the District of Columbia as the storm batters some of the country's largest and most densely populated cities - Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York.

SIEGEL: Throughout the program, we'll hear from our reporters who are stationed up and down the Coast. We'll explain the science of Sandy and cover the impact as the storm cuts inland. And we'll begin with NPR's Jeff Brady. He's in Vineland, New Jersey, near the southern tip of the state. And, Jeff, what are you seeing now?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Well, it's dark outside. And - but throughout the evening, the wind has kind of picked up and then calmed down. At times I can hear the wind wooshing past the hotel window where I am. I'm on the fourth floor, and in the line to the parking lot, I can see a maple tree that just about level with me, it's really taken a beating this evening.

We still have power here, but I know a lot of people throughout the area have lost electricity. The hotel next door, their utility crews posted - yesterday on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I saw a crew coming in from Joplin, Missouri to help out. So once the storm passes, I suspect they'll have a lot of work to do.

SIEGEL: And what are the authorities telling people where you are in southern New Jersey?

BRADY: I attended the briefing this afternoon with Cape May County Emergency Management officials. And they were very concerned about people out on the Barrier Islands who didn't evacuate. They say only about 60 percent of the residents there in Cape May County left. They seemed less concerned about people who live away from the ocean.

On the street in Cape May this afternoon, I stopped to talk with Sandy Mellon(ph). She says she's staying at her home during the storm.

SANDY MELLON: Yeah, it seems like most of the people that we know that are local have decided to stay. I think mostly because anywhere that we would go, they're pretty much in the same predicament, nobody really knows what's going to happen.

BRADY: Mellon says she feels prepared to ride out the storm. And depending on how bad the damages afterward and how long the power is out, she said she may still have to leave then.

CORNISH: Jeff, it's Audie, as the storm comes in, what happens if someone decides they want to leave? I mean, are there crews still available to help them?

BRADY: You know, authorities gave residents plenty of time to get out of the path of the storm. Evacuation started over the weekend. So this afternoon when I talked with officials at the Emergency Management Office for Cape May County, they said they really can't put their people at risk to rescue those who chose not to leave. So they'll need to just stay safe, and they want their people, the county folks to stay safe so they can oversee the cleanup that's going to be needed after the storm is over.

CORNISH: NPR's Jeff Brady joining us from the Vineland, New Jersey. We're going to check in now with NPR's Margot Adler in New York City. And, Margot, we'd heard reports that New York is essentially shutdown. What exactly does that look like?

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Well, subways, buses, ferries, planes, none of them are running. Taxis are no longer running. Pretty much everything is closed. Earlier in the day, that wasn't true. I saw mail carriers getting some of the mail out, even runners still training for the marathon which is Sunday. But now as the wind has really picked up here, trees have been down, the power is out. In fact, the latest report say some 850,000 people are already without power.

Con Edison is also taking down the power in some lower-lying Manhattan and Brooklyn areas in fear that power lines will be destroyed by salt water. And that will clearly add to the number of people affected. Water levels in some places in Lower Manhattan are up 11 feet. And at the moment the streets are pretty deserted. The Chinese restaurant I found open was one of the only open businesses near Times Square.

About an hour ago, I walked down to the Hudson River near Pier 42 - I mean, sorry, near 42nd Street. The water was sloshing over the banks. In the Rockaways in Staten Island, there are places where beaches are gone, boardwalks are covered in. There have been people tweeting pictures all over television of cars moving slowly through a couple of feet of water.

In Midtown, a construction crane atop one of the most desirable new high rise buildings is teetering dangerously. And not only have streets nearby been evacuated and cordoned off, but the Parker Meridien Hotel nearby was being evacuated.

SIEGEL: Margot, we heard from Jeff Brady about people down on the Jersey Shore who are, in some cases, ignoring orders to evacuate, 375,000 New Yorkers have been asked to evacuate. Do you think they're going to do it?

ADLER: Most of them have not. A majority of people are staying. And now, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that it's too late, just don't leave.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you. NPR's Margot Adler in New York. Our own Claudio Sanchez is monitoring the weather here in Washington, D.C. and joins us in the studio. And, Claudio, what are the conditions like out there?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Well, earlier in the day, the wind really started picking up. And by late afternoon we were seeing gusts of up to 50 miles per hour. Those are expected to reach 62 to 80 miles per hour by midnight into Tuesday morning. There has been at least one storm-related death in Bethesda, Maryland, just across the D.C.-Maryland border.

Forecasters warned that there could be a four to eight-foot storm surge along the Potomac River, which hugs part of the city. D.C.'s Water Authority is predicting that a foot or more of rain will accumulate in the most flood-prone areas like Georgetown, a popular tourist stop.

CORNISH: Claudio, how has the city responded to these fear?

SANCHEZ: Well, all federal and city government buildings, of course, were close Monday and will stay close Tuesday. District of Columbia schools and the city's Metrorail Bus Service may not open until Wednesday. Amtrak is to shutdown as well as the city's two major airports - Washington Reagan National and Dulles. They canceled all flights throughout Monday and Tuesday as well with a number of expected going on to Wednesday.

D.C. will be able to tap into federal emergency aid, meanwhile, for the duration of the storm and its aftermath. The city has run out of sandbags and is scrambling to get more after distributing about 16,000 sandbags over the weekend. The city is also operating about five shelters, but D.C. fire and police chiefs announced that fire engines and ambulances would not be able to respond to emergency calls if sustained winds reach 40 miles per hour.

CORNISH: And briefly, what's the word on outages?

SANCHEZ: Well, Pepco, the local power company, is now reporting that there are more than 5,000 D.C. residents without electricity. The numbers are expected to climb very fast, although Pepco has been slow to provide updates. Company officials predict that D.C. residents will be in the dark for at least a week after the storm moves out.

CORNISH: NPR's Claudio Sanchez here with us in Washington. We now turn to NPR's Joe Palca about the science behind Sandy. And, Joe, where exactly is the center of the storm now?

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Well, the center seems - the center seems to have diffused a bit, and so the National Hurricane Center has told us that it's come ashore across the southern New Jersey coastline. So it's not a single entity any longer.

CORNISH: And one of the biggest concerns is the wind speed, and there's been a slowdown a few hours ago. Do you think they'll keep their strength for a while?

PALCA: Well, it was a modest slow down from 90 to 85, that's according to the Weather Service, maximum sustained winds. But as the storm comes over land, it will start to lose some of its energy and some of those winds will abate, though, as Claudio just said, in some parts. In some places, it will take overnight or even longer to come down to manageable levels.

SIEGEL: Joe, can you explain this decision to reclassify Sandy. It was a hurricane until not too long ago. Now they have decided it's no longer a hurricane, but that doesn't mean that it's no longer a powerful and dangerous storm.

PALCA: I'm glad you asked that because it's one of those technical things that weather forecasters think a lot about. But here is the main difference. A tropical cyclone, which is what we think of as a hurricane is formed by warm water giving energy to winds that go on cyclical pattern.

SIEGEL: Spin around.

PALCA: Yeah, they spin around. A winter storm is from - driven by differences in temperature in the atmosphere. Those are two different types of storm. In this case, these two have sort of merged, and that's why the storm is taking a funny track and that's why it's no longer officially a hurricane, it's now a post-tropical cyclone.

SIEGEL: But it means storm just the same?

PALCA: Yup.

SIEGEL: NPR's Joel Palca, thanks so much.

JOEL PALCA, BYLINE: You're welcome.

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