A superstorm threatening 50 million people in the most heavily populated corridor in the nation gained strength Monday, forecasters said.
The National Hurricane Center said early Monday that Hurricane Sandy increased its top sustained winds from 75 mph to 85 mph, with higher gusts.
The Category 1 hurricane is moving north at 15 mph after moving northeast Sunday night. Hurricane-force winds extend up to 175 miles from the storm's center. Gale force winds were reported over coastal North Carolina, southeastern Virginia, the Delmarva Peninsula and coastal New Jersey.
Sandy is about 385 miles south-southeast of New York City and the center of the storm is expected to be near the mid-Atlantic coast on Monday night. It was expected to hook inland during the day, colliding with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.
CBS News hurricane consultant David Bernard reports that wind gusts of 38 mph and 41 mph have already been reported in New York City and Boston, respectively.
Sandy is likely going to strengthen even more as it approaches the East Coast, Bernard reports, with hurricane-force winds reaching land by Monday afternoon. Flooding will be a huge threat, with many areas potentially seeing rainfall amounts between 5 and 8 inches over a 48-hour period.
From Washington to Boston, big cities and small towns were buttoned up against the onslaught of Sandy, with forecasters warning that the New York area could get the worst of it — an 11-foot wall of water.
"The time for preparing and talking is about over," Federal Emergency Management Administrator Craig Fugate said Sunday as Hurricane Sandy made its way up the Atlantic on a collision course with two other weather systems that could turn it into one of the most fearsome storms on record in the U.S. "People need to be acting now."
Forecasters said the hurricane could blow ashore Monday night or early Tuesday along the New Jersey coast, then cut across into Pennsylvania and travel up through New York State on Wednesday.
Airlines canceled more than 7,200 flights and Amtrak began suspending train service across the Northeast. New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore moved to shut down their subways, buses and trains and said schools would be closed on Monday. Boston also called off school. And all non-essential government offices closed in the nation's capital.
The New York Stock Exchange said it will be shut down Monday, including electronic trading. Nasdaq is shutting the Nasdaq Stock Market and other U.S. exchanges and markets it owns, although its exchanges outside the U.S. will operate as scheduled.
As rain from the leading edges of the monster hurricane began to fall over the Northeast, hundreds of thousands of people from Maryland to Connecticut were ordered to evacuate low-lying coastal areas, including 375,000 in lower Manhattan and other parts of New York City, 50,000 in Delaware and 30,000 in Atlantic City, N.J., where the city's 12 casinos were forced to shut down for only the fourth time ever.
"We were told to get the heck out. I was going to stay, but it's better to be safe than sorry," said Hugh Phillips, who was one of the first in line when a Red Cross shelter in Lewes, Del., opened at noon.
"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.'"
However, CBS News correspondent Chip Reid reports, some, like Ocean City, Md., surfer Brian Dean, said they have decided to stay.
"We've got everything pretty well situated, bunkered down, generators, [we'll] hang out, ride it out. We rode out Irene last year, it wasn't that bad," he said.
Authorities warned that the nation's biggest city could get hit with a surge of seawater that could swamp parts of lower Manhattan, flood subway tunnels and cripple the network of electrical and communications lines that are vital to the nation's financial center.
Sandy was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began traveling northward, parallel to the Eastern Seaboard.
Forecasters said the combination of it with the storm from the west and the cold air from the Arctic 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. The storm could also dump up to 2 feet of snow in Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia.