Hurricane Sandy: Millions brace for impact

The hurricane, which has claimed 65 lives so far in the Caribbean, is also likely to play havoc with the US election, introducing a fresh element of uncertainty and disruption in the final days of the closely contested campaign.

Although Sandy is not expected to make landfall until late on Monday, gale-force winds were on Sunday night already buffeting Virginia and North Carolina. The "super storm" is expected to veer left towards the east coast, colliding with wintry weather moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.

"It's a very, very large system," Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Centre, said. "The storm is going to carve a pretty large swath of bad weather, both water and wind."

New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Boston all lie in the target zone, but Sandy is likely to cause disruption across much of the US and officials warned it could cause power cuts lasting for days. "The time for preparing and talking is about over," warned Craig Fugate, federal emergency management administrator. "People need to be acting now."

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have both been forced to cancel events scheduled for Sunday and Monday, and the Obama campaign's "early vote" strategy is in danger of being thrown into disarray. The president's campaign had hoped to turn out Democrat voters before Election Day, November 6. But the bad weather is almost certain to put a stop to the long queues which formed outside polling stations at the weekend.

New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, ordered the evacuation of some 375 000 people from low-lying areas and public schools were told to close on Monday. For only the second time in the city's history, the subway system is to be closed. "If you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you," Bloomberg said. "This is a serious and dangerous storm." Although similar warnings of serious damage in New York last year turned out to be empty, people are taking few chances. Supermarkets were packed as customers stocked up, businesses closed early and nursing homes were being evacuated.

Forecasters warned that at high tide, seawater could surge up to 3.4 metres above ground level in New York harbour. In Lower Manhattan water was close to street level. One employee of an apartment building pushed a trolley of sandbags across the road to try to reinforce the defences.

Emergency measures
The president urged those in the path of the storm "to take this very seriously" but expressed confidence that all emergency measures were in place.

"This hasn't hit landfall yet. So we don't yet know where it's going to hit, where we're going to see the biggest impacts and that's exactly why it's so important for us to respond big and respond fast as local information starts coming in."

The storm posed an additional challenge for Obama, who must balance his duties as president with his desire to get out on the campaign trail. After the US ambassador to Libya was killed in September, Obama was accused of quitting Washington too soon to attend a fundraising event in Las Vegas.

After visiting the federal emergency monitoring agency, he headed to Florida a day earlier than planned to squeeze in campaign stops there and in Ohio before returning to Washington. A planned rally on Monday in Virginia, one of the biggest events of the campaign so far, has been scrapped, as has a trip to Colorado on Tuesday. The White House has tentatively arranged to restart campaigning later on Tuesday, flying from DC to Wisconsin if the weather has abated.

Romney also abandoned campaign stops on the east coast but without presidential commitments, he has been able to rearrange his schedule to continue campaigning elsewhere, chiefly Ohio.

Obama's main campaign adviser, David Axelrod, told CNN no one knew how hurricane Sandy will affect the election. "We're most concerned about people. This storm could affect 50-million people," Axelrod said. "The best thing we can do is to focus on how we can help people, and hope it all clears out by next weekend."

With polls showing the contenders apart by only one or two points – and a new one, alarming for the Obama team, showing the two even in Ohio, which had been a Democrat bastion – it could be Obama's campaign that suffers most. He has placed a lot of importance on getting Democrat voters out early in the eight or nine swing states, but those plans could be seriously disrupted by two or three days of rain and power cuts.

Monitoring the storm
"We're closely monitoring the storm. The safety of not only our staff but also our supporters and volunteers is the top priority," Jen Psaki, an Obama campaign spokesperson, told reporters.

The upside for Obama is that he could benefit from appearing presidential, sitting in the White House in touch with emergency operations, while Romney is on the stump making partisan points.

In New York, the aisles of Whole Foods Market in Tribeca, one of the biggest retailers in Lower Manhattan, were heaving with customers. Grace Lin, who lives just outside the evacuation zone, said she was taking in friends from nearby. "There will be four adults and four children, and we are two adults and two children, so it's going to be pretty cosy," she said.

Residents of the area had made similar preparations for hurricane Irene in September last year which ended up sparing New York City and leading to accusations of overreaction. But Lin said this storm appeared to be worse, and that she had particular concerns about power outages. "People are taking it more seriously than last time. The biggest issue for our friends is the elevators not working, not the flooding."

Not everyone planned to leave the recommended evacuation areas, though. Kevin Heeney (28) was stocking up with bottled water, but had no plans to move out. "We're going to stick it out," he said.

Emerging from Whole Foods laden with bags of groceries, Danny and Laura Fletcher, a British couple who had just moved to the city, were sceptical of the reaction of New Yorkers. "We've just bought a big roast lunch," said Danny Fletcher. "I don't think it's going to be that bad. But it's panic stations in there," he said.

Hurricane Sandy has injected an element of unpredictability into a US election that had been proceeding along lines worked out by the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney months ago.

Economic collapse
But it is not the first time in US political history that bad weather or other unexpected vents have changed a campaign's dynamic. US journalists have since the 1970s have come to expect what they have coined as 'the October Surprise', first used in 1972.

These October surprises have ranged from the revelation in 2000 of George W Bush's arrest on a drunk-driving charge, to the appearance of an Osama bin Laden video in 2004.

Sometimes the suprises are not confined to October. Romney fell victim just two months ago to a similar hurricane warning when he was forced to cancel the first day of the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida. Given that the convention as a whole suffered from bad reviews in the US media and he received no poll bounce from it, that may have turned out to be a plus rather than a negative.

In the run-up to the 2008 election, the sudden economic collapse in September saw Republican John McCain suspend his campaign to return to Washington for an emergency meeting, forcing Obama to return too. That went badly for McCain as he had little to say in Washington.

Even a day or two off the campaign trail can have an impact. Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, fighting for the party nomination in 1972, seemed to have Ohio in the bag but may have lost it because of returning to Washington to deal with an issue related to the Vietnam war.

No one can predict the impact of Hurricane Sandy on this election. What will play better? Obama being presidential in Washington, seemingly in command of the emergency operations, while Romney continues campaigning? Or will Obama be unable resist the lure of rushing back to campaigning prematurely? – © Guardian News and Media 2012

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