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Hurricane Sandy Hits East Coast, Expected to Affect 50 Million-Plus Americans

October 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Over 50 million Americans brace for heavy flooding, blizzard conditions, wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour and resulting power outages and evacuations, as Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast. NewsHour talks to National Hurricane Center's James Franklin and Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
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GWEN IFILL: Hurricane Sandy began battering its way ashore today, threatening days of destruction. The huge system had 50 million people in its sights and was already being called a superstorm.

The winds grew stronger by the hour. And the rain poured harder, soaking the East Coast as the hurricane closed in. Nine states declared emergencies, and people up and down the coast braced for heavy flooding, wind damage, and resulting power outages.

JEFF LOTUS, Ocean City, Md.: I just got another load of sandbags to put around the doors to keep the water out. Got the generator ready to go. And we’re going to sit there and ride it out. No place else to go.

NEVA EYRES, Point Pleasant, N.J.: I am worried, because there’s a reason to be worried. But you know what? We’re going to hope for the best. That’s all. You know what? It’s just a home. It’s just a house. We’re safe. That’s what we care about.

GWEN IFILL: Forecasts have the center of Sandy striking in southern New Jersey, then turning north with tropical-storm-force winds, blasting a broad path through the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

Seen from space, the storm looks even more enormous, stretching nearly 1,000 miles from end to end. It threatened to dump a foot of rain in places and hit shorelines with a storm surge of four to eleven feet of water.

The hurricane had already killed 69 people as it passed through the Caribbean. With that in mind, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie issued a blunt warning to anyone thinking of riding out the storm.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.Y.: This is not a time to be a showoff. This is not a time to be stupid. This is a time to try to save yourself and your family. Now, everybody thinks they’re smarter than we are here. And maybe they are, but not about this.

GWEN IFILL: In New York City, officials shut down all transit services and ordered nearly 400,000 people to evacuate low-lying areas.

Hours before Sandy hit, high water blew on to the boardwalk in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. High winds also left a construction crane dangling from atop a 65-story building. And even the stock market closed due to weather for the first time in nearly 30 years. It will remain closed tomorrow.

The nation’s capital followed suit, shutting down public transportation, schools, and federal offices. President Obama canceled a campaign rally in Florida and flew back to Washington, appearing early this afternoon to promise federal help.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m extraordinarily grateful for the cooperation of our state and local officials. The conversations that I have had with all the governors indicate that at this point there are no unmet needs.

I think everybody is taking this very seriously. We have got — pre-positioned all the resources that we need. But, right now, the key is to make sure that the public is following instructions. Keep in mind that, for folks who are not following instructions, if you are not evacuating when you have been asked to evacuate, you’re putting first-responders at danger.

GWEN IFILL: On Sunday, things seemed less urgent for some, taking pictures at Ocean City, Md. But by this afternoon, waves were pounding that beach.

Gov. Martin O’Malley warned of much worse.

GOV. MARTIN O’MALLEY, D-Md.: We are ordering and urging all Marylanders to stay off the roads for next 36 hours. There are very dangerous conditions out there. And we ask you not to put yourselves or your family in jeopardy.

GWEN IFILL: Norfolk, Va., also had flooding as the storm passed on Sunday. In addition, a number of states closed schools for at least two days. And canceled was the word of the day for air travel as well, with more than 7,000 flights grounded at East Coast airports.

WOMAN: I am really hoping that I get to get out of here before the heavy weather hits. I come from Florida. So I’m kind of hoping just to get out of the way of the storm.

GWEN IFILL: But not everyone managed to get out of the way. The Coast Guard rescued 14 crew members from a replica tall ship, the HMS Bounty, sailing off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Two were still missing.

For more about the hurricane and what’s to come, we turn to James Franklin of the National Hurricane Center. I spoke with him this afternoon.

James Franklin, welcome.

So, tonight, is Sandy picking up steam?

JAMES FRANKLIN, National Hurricane Center: Sandy accelerated during the day today, taking it a little bit faster towards the coast. That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Where is it going to hit?

Well, we’re looking at the southern part of New Jersey, somewhere in there.

But it’s really more important to talk about the overall effects of the storm, because the effects are spreading from New England all the way through the Mid-Atlantic states. The center location is not particularly important.

GWEN IFILL: Does this feel to you like a once-in-a-lifetime weather event?

JAMES FRANKLIN: I have been in this business for 30 years now, and I can’t remember anything quite like it.

GWEN IFILL: Can you explain for us how this hybrid storm came together?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Normally, what happens when — as we get towards the latter part of the hurricane season into the fall, these systems come moving north. And the prevailing westerly winds take these systems out to sea and they weaken and decay.

But we had an unusual situation with a very large area of high pressure off of Atlantic Canada that turned it, that blocked, got in the way of Sandy, turned it back, and at the same time we had a shot of energy from the upper levels of the atmosphere that came all the way from Pacific Canada across the United States that reached the system at the upper levels earlier today, spun it up, that allowed it to get stronger at a time when systems usually weaken.

GWEN IFILL: We’re used to hearing about hurricanes in late summer, early fall. How unusual is it to see an October hurricane?

JAMES FRANKLIN: October hurricanes are not unusual.

In fact, after Sandy is gone, we will have another full month of the hurricane season to go. It runs through November 30. The normal favored area for those late season storms is more of the Caribbean. But we can certainly have them here, as we do now.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the breadth of the storm. As this one comes ashore, where is more dangerous, the center of the storm or the edges?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Every single tropical cyclone is different. And we have different hazards. We have a wind hazard, we have rain falling, inland flooding, we have storm surge, and we have tornadoes.

In this case, we have one that we normally don’t talk about, and that’s snow, because, again, it’s a combination of hurricane and wintertime low. In this case, the threat that we’re most concerned about is the storm surge, because we could have 11 feet of water in Long Island Sound or Raritan Bay and amounts almost that high along the Jersey coast and in southern New England.

And those are water levels high enough to kill people if they stayed when they shouldn’t have.

GWEN IFILL: Is it the cumulative effect of all of that rainfall that makes up the storm surge?

JAMES FRANKLIN: What we’re talking about with those six to 11 feet is the combination of surge and tide. It’s the amount of water above the ground.

I’m 5’6”, and 11 foot of water puts me in a real bad place. So, we’re talking about water above your head. And that’s why people needed to evacuate.

GWEN IFILL: How would you compare this storm to other major storms we have lived through, like Katrina or like Irene?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Every storm is different, as I said. They have their own hazards.

Irene was a storm that moved parallel to the coast with most of the heaviest weather to the right, so that there were a lot of folks very close to the center, in New Jersey, for example, that didn’t really know that there was a lot going on. This storm, instead, first of all, it’s much larger than Irene. It’s coming directly at the coast, instead of paralleling it.

And the effects are spanning hundreds and hundreds of miles, much more so than Irene.

GWEN IFILL: This also seems to be a storm that is hovering with lots of rain centered over one area. How many days do you expect we will be coping with the fallout from all of that?

JAMES FRANKLIN: Well, I think that it’s going to take until Wednesday before conditions really significantly improve, so that people can get back and start looking at what happened.

Tomorrow is still going to be a bad day, because the system is going to slow down once it gets towards Pennsylvania. It will weaken, but it’s going to take a long time for this system to wind down.

GWEN IFILL: James Franklin of the National Hurricane Center, thank you.

JAMES FRANKLIN: You’re welcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, a closer look at what officials on the ground have been doing to prepare for the storm’s blow.

Ray Suarez spoke by phone a short time ago with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J.

RAY SUAREZ: Mayor Cory Booker, welcome to the program.

Whether you’re looking at the video from Ground Zero or looking at Newark from space, it looks like the area is going to get hit pretty hard. What have you seen on the streets of your city?

MAYOR CORY BOOKER, D-Newark, N.J.: It’s starting to get bad already. Already, we see branches coming down, power lines coming down. And we have not seen the worst of it.

We’re going to see in many ways a pretty savage alignment of high tide, the peak of the storm surge, a full moon, all going to bring an unprecedented amount of water into our city. This is an epic storm and very unpredictable. It’s going to bring a lot of challenges to emergency workers.

And that is why we need residents to use common sense. If they’re in flooded areas, use this remaining hour or two before the peak of the storm to evacuate. Call for needed information. Stay hunkered down and off the roads if you are in a safe location now.

RAY SUAREZ: Mayor, we should give people a little bit of a Newark geography lesson. While you aren’t on — right on the ocean, you do have an awful lot of waterfront. Are there areas in the city that are vulnerable to flooding?

CORY BOOKER: Absolutely.

Our city is right along the Passaic River. Many people do know Newark for it being a port city. So, we are right into the bay there. So a lot of New Jersey is on coastline. A lot of cities like mine and New York City, Jersey City, we’re all right along water.

And we have seen traditionally, especially last year with Irene, significant flooding. But what’s different this year is this storm is, as I said before, epic. It will last in duration perhaps twice as long as Irene and will bring about a significant — significantly more water into our city. So we’re expecting roads being backed up, communities really being under large amounts of water, power outages that could last for days, if not well more than a week.

So, all of this means that we have to now fight the storm as it is and comes in and goes out, but the aftermath will be a very difficult time of cleanup as well.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s the best advice you’re getting about when the worst of the storm is going to hit Newark?

CORY BOOKER: Well, we know in about an hour or two, that’s when the significant time, 36-hour period, which we are going to be at our peak of this state of emergency.

By 8:00 tonight, that’s when high tide will come and the storm surges will really bring on the water. And, unfortunately, we think we’re going to have, from then, more than a 24-hour period of challenges, rain, wind, water, as the storm just sits on us and slowly moves over.

So this is just not a time to not use common sense. If any time, there’s a moment to embrace prudence, common sense, proactive thinking in these remaining hours, if not minutes. We need everyone to be focused first and foremost on safety and security. And get yourself into a location where you can be safe.

If you can’t, reach out to authorities like those in my city to help get you into a shelter. But this is going to be a very difficult, very long time. And the best advantage we have is the common sense, intelligence and forward thinking of our community.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Newark is a pretty densely populated place. It’s got a lot of multiple dwellings, also a lot of elderly and low-income people. Are there any special challenges that come with your particular profile during a national disaster like this one?

CORY BOOKER: You know, absolutely.

Urban areas are often areas that bring a lot of homeless folks for the resources, transportation. And so we spanned out earlier today to identify places where homeless folks congregate and been moving them into shelters. We have people that are heavily reliant on public transportation. And that obviously was shut down in the state of New Jersey hours ago.

So all of this puts the burden on us to be far more proactive in assisting people. And, frankly, this is what I like about the spirit of my city is during times of crisis, it’s just good to see everybody helping other people out, reaching out to seniors that were shut in, making sure they have supplies.

So we’re operating in every way possible, from using traditional means of communication, using social media. I’m on my Twitter account throughout the day and night just trying to respond to people who might be in need.

But, again, the most powerful force we have against this storm is the common sense, the prudence, the caution of our community. Last year in Irene, I saw unfortunately people making bad decisions, going out in the storm, thinking their car could move through a flooded street, and seeing my emergency personnel have to do heroic things, putting their lives at risk, putting their families in jeopardy by having to wade into very difficult situations to rescue people.

We do not want to see that this year. What we want to see this year is more of what I know is the spirit of our city, which is the spirit of intelligence, the spirit of forward thinking, caution, prudence. That will get us through this difficult time.

RAY SUAREZ: Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, N.J.

Good luck, sir, and thanks for joining us.

CORY BOOKER: Well, thank you for keeping the focus on the problem and alerting the people to all the issues.