Hurricane Sandy intensified as it roared toward the US East Coast, bringing New York, Washington and other major cities to a standstill.
On Monday, the weather disrupted the US election campaign, shut down the New York Stock Exchange, brought down power lines and triggered the evacuation of thousands of people from low-lying coastal areas at risk of unprecedented storm surges.
The category one hurricane, which has already killed at least 66 people in the Caribbean, is expected to make landfall near the evacuated gambling haven of Atlantic City in the state of New Jersey around midnight.
Streets leading up to the city's famed ocean-front boardwark were flooded, and streets deserted as the city braced for high tide. Forecasters, however, have warned that the storm's effects could extend all the way from North Carolina to New England.
As it approached, Sandy's maximum sustained winds strengthened to 90 miles per hour (150 kilometers per hour) from 75mph in the morning and at 1500 GMT, its eye was located 205 miles southeast of Atlantic City.
President Barack Obama canceled an appearance in the battleground state of Florida, returning to the White House to steer a huge government relief effort, while citizens battened down hatches and watched the weather on live webcams.
With just eight days until the election, both the Democrat incumbent and his Republican rival Mitt Romney were keen 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.
Although Sandy lacks the sheer force of Katrina it has a broader front and could combine later this week with cold weather bearing down from Canada to wreak havoc in a climatic confluence of events dubbed a "Perfect Storm".
Obama has already signed emergency declarations to free up federal disaster funds for New York state, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
"There will undoubtedly be some deaths," Maryland governor Martin O'Malley told reporters, citing the intensity of the storm and likely floods caused by the tidal surge and high waves.
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 more than three metres above normal levels, coinciding with high tides due to the full moon. But many residents at Rockaway Beach, in the Big Apple borough of Queens, refused to bow to official demands that they stay home. Some walked their dogs and others took photos of waves sending water across the beach boardwalk.
Around 1 400 national guardsmen have been activated and around 60 000 more are on standby, the Pentagon said, with 140 helicopters being made available in anticipation of rescue and relief efforts.
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.
The storm caused havoc at sea when the 16-person crew of HMS Bounty, a replica of the three-mast vessel on which a famous mutiny took place in 1789, was 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 144 kilometres southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina. Fourteen of the crew were hoisted to safety but two were still missing, the coastguard said.
Governors have declared states of emergency in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia as well as in the US capital.
New York authorities ordered the evacuation on Sunday of 375 000 people from low-lying coastal areas, while buses stopped and Amtrak suspended all train services up and down the coast. Subway services, buses and commuter trains were also shut down in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. And the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and the futures markets in Chicago were closed on Monday, and may stay closed on Tuesday. Almost 9 000 flights were canceled so far as a result of the hurricane, according to the information service flightaware.com.
On Sunday, before hunkering down, fearful residents from Washington to New York to Boston queued for emergency provisions like bottled water and batteries in long lines that stretched out the doors of supermarkets.
No water or lights in Santiago
Residents of Cuba's second-largest city of Santiago remained without power or running water Monday, four days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall as the island's deadliest storm in seven years, ripping rooftops from homes and toppling power lines.
The death toll across the Caribbean rose to 69. Cuban authorities have not yet estimated the economic toll, but the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported there was "severe damage to housing, economic activity, fundamental public services and institutions of education, health and culture".
Sandy killed 11 people on the island including a four-month-old boy, making it the deadliest since 2005's Hurricane Dennis, a category 5 monster that killed 16 people and did $2.4-billion in damage.
More than 130 000 homes were damaged by Sandy, including 15 400 that were destroyed, Granma said.
The storm also is blamed for the deaths of 52 people in Haiti, two in the Bahamas, two in the Dominican Republic, one in Jamaica and one in Puerto Rico.
Sandy's center came onshore early on Thursday just west of Santiago, a city of about 500 000 people in agricultural southeastern Cuba.
On Monday, sound trucks cruised the streets urging people to boil drinking water to prevent infectious disease. Soldiers worked to remove rubble and downed trees from the streets. Authorities have set up radios and TVs in public spaces to keep people up to date on relief efforts, distributed chlorine to sterilise water and prioritised electrical service to strategic uses such as hospitals and bakeries. – AFP, Sapa-AP