By Ben Brumfield and Mariano Castillo, CNN
(CNN) – The U.S. East Coast ramped up emergency preparations on Saturday for Hurricane Sandy, a monstrous and deadly storm that forecasters said could severely impact cities and towns with heavy flooding and fierce winds.
Sandy moved slowly off the coast of South Carolina as a Category 1 storm, having left at least 45 dead in its wake in the Caribbean and Central America. It is expected to begin seriously affecting heavily populated coastal areas in the East as early as Sunday.
Residents from North Carolina to New England sandbagged low lying areas, secured and fortified homes and buildings, and packed stores to stock up on bottled water, food, and batteries in anticipation of widespread power outages.
Presidential campaigns adjusted their schedules to account for Sandy’s potential impact. At least one state that could be hit hard, Virginia, is a hotly contested battleground in the November 6 election.
Several states declared emergencies and accelerated storm preparations. New Jersey was the first to announce mandatory evacuations.
“We have to prepare for the worst here,” Gov. Chris Christie said.
The state’s barrier islands from Sandy Hook south to Cape May must be cleared out by Sunday afternoon. Those at Atlantic City casinos also must leave by then.
The biggest threat scenario involves the hurricane colliding with a cold front from the West, creating a “superstorm” that could stall over the Eastern seaboard for days. Residents have been asked to prepare for the possibility of a week or more without power.
CNN Weather estimates that damage from Sandy could reach $3.2 billion. This estimate is based only on wind damage and does not include flooding.
The District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia New Jersey, North Carolina and New York have declared states of emergency, while Maine’s governor signed a limited emergency declaration. Delaware’s governor has said the state will issue a mandatory evacuation of its coastline, if the storm stays on path.
Sandy will be studied for years to come, said Louis Uccellini, who is responsible for environmental prediction at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
How is Sandy expected to develop?
Weather forecasters still predict it will push in a large storm surge as it nears land, inundate a broad, highly populated region with rain and impact utility service.
“Forget about the category with this,” said CNN meteorologist Rob Marciano. “When you have trees with leaves on them still, this kind of wind and rain on top of that, you’re talking about trees that are going to come down, power lines are going to be out and the coastal flooding situation is going to be huge.”
Merging with the cold front, as is predicted, “will energize this system, so we’ll actually get an intensification of this system,” Uccellini said.
Heavy snow was possible for the Appalachians.
“Expect it to move very slowly,” said James Franklin of the National Hurricane Center. “The large size of the system and its slow motion will mean a long-lasting event with two to three days of impacts.”
The tropical storm force winds were likely to spread over a vast distance, potentially up to 700 miles from North Carolina to Maine.
Sandy has taken on a lopsided form and its heaviest winds should be in the northern and eastern sections of the storm as it nears land — and be directed inbound toward the coastline.
The surge is likely to hit during a full moon, when tides are the highest, worsening coastal damage.
Computer models predict Delaware, Maryland and Virginia could see up to a foot of rain, according to the CNN Weather Unit. Isolated spots could see the worst rains in 500 years.
At 11 a.m. ET Saturday, the National Weather Service said Sandy was about 355 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina. It was a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 mph.
The U.S. target area was hard to predict. Some landfall computer models showed the storm striking somewhere between the border of North Carolina and Virginia north to Connecticut. That area includes some of the most densely populated areas of the country.
Sandy is responsible at least 29 deaths in Haiti, Civil Protection spokesman Joseph Edgard Celestin said. Four Haitians remained missing. Another 16 people were reported killed in Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
How will Sandy effect voting and election campaigning?
With early voting underway for the U.S. presidential election already under way in many states, Sandy’s wrath could impact the political situation.
In Virginia Beach, a campaign rally scheduled for Sunday for GOP nominee Mitt Romney was canceled because of the storm. There was no word on the status of other events scheduled later in the week.
“We’re keeping an eye on it,” said a senior Romney campaign adviser.
Similarly, Vice President Joe Biden canceled his visit to Virginia Beach on Saturday, “out of an abundance of caution to ensure that all local law enforcement and emergency management resources can stay focused on ensuring the safety of people who might be impacted by the storm,” the Obama administration said.
Early voting kicked off Monday in Washington and is scheduled to start Saturday in Maryland. On Friday, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley left open the possibility that the vote could be rescheduled, or polling stations relocated inland.
What preparations are being made?
All the Northeast airports will experience delayed and canceled flights.
American, United and Spirit airlines announced late Friday they would waive fees for passengers traveling in and out of many Atlantic coast cities who want to change plans.
Amtrak will deploy preparedness crews and equipment along its tracks in the Northeast to remove debris, make repairs and mend any downed electrical lines, it said in a statement Friday.
Washington’s power company has ordered 2,500 additional linemen, 400 tree cutters and has staffed beefed up call center staff, according to affiliate WJLA. “We’ll open up additional staging areas,” PEPCO executive David Velazquez said.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is studying whether it should suspend all or some services ahead of the storm, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In Maryland, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company expects that several hundred thousand customers could be affected, as early as Sunday.
Late Friday, shoppers depleted pallets of mineral water stacked up outside a supermarket in Staten Island, New York.
In New York City, workers covered subway ventilation grids to keep potential flood waters out. Bulldozers shored up sand to form barriers in hopes of preventing street flooding in coastal areas of the city’s Burroughs.
Is Sandy another “Perfect Storm?”
Sandy presents a scenario not unlike the one that led to 1991′s “Perfect Storm,” when moisture flung north by Hurricane Grace combined with a high pressure system and a cold front to produce a tempest in the north Atlantic over Halloween.
But Grace never made landfall.
CNN’s Joe Sutton, Brandon Miller and David Alsup contributed to this report