By Tom Watkins, Josh Levs and Chelsea J. Carter
(CNN) – Superstorm Sandy officially made landfall Monday evening along the coast of southern New Jersey, the National Hurricane Center reported.
Though no longer a hurricane, “post-tropical” storm Sandy still packed a hurricane-sized punch as it closed on the New Jersey coast with 85 mph winds Monday evening, forecasters said.
The storm drove torrents of water up the streets of Atlantic City, stretching for blocks inland and ripping up part of the vacation spot’s fabled boardwalk. It spawned high winds and torrential rains from North Carolina to Maine, and more than 2.2 million people were out of power across 11 states and the District of Columbia.
“In some places, we have two and a half to three feet of water on the ground, and this is the low tide,” Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford told CNN.
The storm had already knocked down power lines and tree limbs while still 50 miles offshore, and he urged anyone staying in the resort to “hunker down and try to wait this thing out.”
“When Mother Nature sends her wrath your way, we’re at her mercy, and so all we can do is stay prayerful and do the best that we can,” Langford said.
Sandy’s eye was expected to come ashore along or near the southern New Jersey shore early Monday evening. Sandy had already “wiped out” a northern section of the boardwalk in Atlantic City, but most of the East Coast landmark was intact, Langford said.
At 7 p.m. ET, Sandy was centered about 20 miles south of Atlantic City and was expected to hit land within an hour, the National Hurricane Center reported. As it lost tropical characteristics, forecasters redesignated it a “post-tropical storm” and not a hurricane.
Still, its expected storm surge could raise water levels to 11 feet above normal high tide, already the highest of the month because of a full moon.
And forecasters said Sandy was likely to collide with a cold front and spawn a superstorm that could generate flash floods and snowstorms.
Hurricane-force winds stretched from Virginia to Cape Cod, and tropical-storm force winds ranged for nearly 500 miles on either side of the storm.
Sandy had already knocked out power to about 1.5 million electric customers in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Mass transit shut down across the densely populated region, landmarks stood empty and schools and government offices were closed. The National Grid, which provides power to millions of customers, said 60 million people could be affected before it’s over.
“It could be bad,” said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Steven Rattior, “or it could be devastation.”
Sandy formed last week and swept across the Caribbean, where it had already claimed at least 67 lives, 51 of them in Haiti. Another two people were missing at sea off North Carolina after the crew of the HMS Bounty, a replica of the historic sailing ship, foundered in the storm, the U.S. Coast Guard said.
In New York, forecasters projected a storm surge of 10 to 12 feet for lower Manhattan’s Battery Park, which could break a record set in 1960 with Hurricane Donna. Water depths could reach 6 to 11 feet along Long Island Sound and New York Harbor.
The city halted service on its bus and train lines, closing schools and ordering about 400,000 people out of their homes in low-lying areas of Manhattan and elsewhere.
On Fire Island, off Long Island, the water was already rising above promenades and docks on Monday afternoon, homeowner Karen Boss said.
Boss stayed on the island with her husband despite a mandatory evacuation order. She said they own several properties and a business there and had weathered previous storms.
“I’m concerned that it might come into the first floor,” she said. “If that’s the case, I’ll just move into another house that’s higher up.”
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And New York’s skyscrapers will be battered with higher winds the taller they are: An 80-mph gust at ground level becomes a nearly 100-mph gust at 30 stories up. Far above West 57th Street, a crane snapped and dangled from the side of a luxury high-rise under construction; police closed part of the street and evacuated several nearby buildings, including the Parker Meridien hotel.
The New York Stock Exchange was ordered closed Monday and Tuesday — the first such closure for weather since 1985, when Hurricane Gloria struck.
Based on pressure readings, it’s likely to be the strongest storm to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, CNN senior meteorologist Dave Hennen said.
The benchmark storm, the 1938 “Long Island Express” Hurricane, contained a low pressure reading of 946 millibars. Sandy had a minimum pressure of 943 millibars. Generally speaking, the lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.
In Sea Bright, New Jersey, Yvette Cafaro scrawled a plea on the plywood that covered her burger restaurant: “Be kind to us Sandy.” The seaside area largely dodged last year’s Hurricane Irene, but Cafaro was not optimistic that Sea Bright would be spared Sandy.
Meteorological data supported her view: Hours before landfall, storm surge for Sandy was higher than it had been for Irene after landfall.
“Everything that we’ve been watching on the news looks like this one will really get us,” she said. “We’re definitely worried about it.”
Its arrival, eight days before the U.S. presidential election, forced President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, to alter or cancel several campaign stops. Obama flew back to Washington from Florida, telling reporters at the White House that assets were in place for an effective response to the storm.
“The most important message I have for the public right now is please listen to what your state and local officials are saying,” Obama said. “When they tell you to evacuate, you need to evacuate.”
And in Ohio, Romney asked supporters to drop off items and cash at his “victory centers” to be donated to victims of the storm.
“There are families in harm’s way that will be hurt — either in their possessions or perhaps in something more severe,” Romney said.
By Monday afternoon, 23 states were under a warning or advisory for wind related to Sandy. Thousands of flights had been canceled, and hundreds of roads and highways were expected to flood. And according to a government model, Sandy’s wind damage alone could cause more than $7 billion in economic loss.
Sandy was expected to weaken once it moves inland, but the center was expected to move slowly northward, meaning gusty winds and heavy rain would continue through Wednesday.
On the western side of the storm, the mountains of West Virginia expected up to three feet of snow and the mountains of southwestern Virginia to the Kentucky state line could see up to two feet. Twelve to 18 inches of snow were expected in the mountains near the North Carolina-Tennessee border.
“This is not a typical storm,” said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. “Essentially, this is a hurricane wrapped in a ‘nor’easter.'”
CNN’s Greg Botelho, Michael Holmes, Jareen Iman, Alison Kosik, Sarah Dillingham, Brandon Miller, George Howell, Athena Jones, Shawn Nottingham and Devon Sayers contributed to this report.
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