HARTFORD, Conn. — Residents in many towns along the southern New England shoreline were forced to leave their homes under mandatory evacuation orders Sunday while officials warned of damaging flooding, high winds and lengthy power outages from a potential superstorm striking the eastern U.S.
Forecasters with the National Weather Service said Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island could expect the worst storm conditions Monday afternoon into Tuesday morning. Meteorologists predicted coastal storm surges of 6 to 11 feet in Long Island Sound, wind gusts of up to 70 mph and several inches of rain.
Home and business owners made last minute preparations Sunday. School officials in the region canceled classes on Monday and Tuesday. Government offices were ordered closed. Utility companies put workers on standby and welcomed out-of-state crews and their equipment to help fix expected power outages. National Guard troops were ready to respond, and emergency shelters were opened.
The governors of all three states, who have declared states of emergency and put National Guard troops on standby, spoke with President Barack Obama by phone on Sunday afternoon.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Sunday that it appeared the worst-case storm scenario would hit the state and that he asked Obama to declare a "pre-landfall emergency" in the state, which would free up federal funding and other assistance before the storm hit. Hurricane Sandy was on a collision course with two other weather systems to create a superstorm.
Malloy said the superstorm "is the largest threat to human life this state has experienced in anyone's lifetime."
Malloy and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said nonessential state government offices would be closed Monday, but Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee said state agencies will remain open.
Officials with Connecticut Light & Power, which serves more than 1 million customers in Connecticut and was criticized for poor response after storms knocked out power last year, said they expected 300,000 to 600,000 homes in the state to lose electricity during the storm.
Thousands of residents in several shoreline towns from Stamford, Conn., to Westerly, R.I., were under mandatory evacuation orders, while officials in many other towns urged residents to leave voluntarily. Connecticut's largest city, Bridgeport, ordered mandatory evacuations of vulnerable areas and opened shelters, while New Haven Mayor John DeStefano said he was ordering evacuations but couldn't force people to leave.
The storm brought back memories of last year's Hurricane Irene, whose remnants damaged numerous homes along the Connecticut shore and left more than 800,000 homes and businesses in the state in the dark, some for more than a week.
Kariann Price, whose home in East Haven, Conn., lies about 30 yards from Long Island Sound, got slammed by Irene, with 3 feet of water in her basement and $20,000 in damage. Price said she is worried that this storm could be even worse, with higher seas predicted.
Residents of her street were under a mandatory evacuation order to leave by 6 p.m. Sunday, but Price said she and her husband couldn't meet that deadline because they were busy moving furniture and other possessions up to the second floor.
"We're elevating everything as much as possible," Price said. "We are not leaving until tomorrow morning. We need all day to bring everything upstairs."
Price echoed many shoreline residents' feelings when she said, "It's unbelievable that this happened a year ago, that this set of circumstances is going to happen again. People are still repairing the damage to their homes from Irene."
Officials at the Millstone nuclear power complex in Waterford, which is on Long Island Sound, were monitoring the storm and installing flood barriers to protect against the storm surge, The Day of New London reported. The Unit 2 reactor is shut down for routine fueling, but Unit 3 is expected to continue operating through the storm, the newspaper reported.
In Massachusetts, officials opened the state emergency operations center in Framingham to coordinate responses to the storm. Patrick ordered non-emergency state workers to stay home and encouraged private employers to tell their workers the same.
"We're going to get through this. We are as well-prepared as we possibly can be," Patrick said at a Sunday afternoon news conference. "This is Mother Nature and Mother Nature is unpredictable, but we are doing everything we can ... to prepare."
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said Sunday that all city public schools will be closed Monday and he ordered all nonessential city workers to stay home Monday.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs Boston's subway and bus service in the region, said it planned to run normal schedules on Monday, but that commuters should expect delays and disruptions.
Also, President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Massachusetts, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local response due to emergency conditions resulting from the storm.
The Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee was sending most of its fleet of C-5 aircraft to Florida in anticipation of the storm.
Home and business owners on Cape Cod said they were worried about high winds and flooding.
Grace Matakanski, of Bourne, Mass., was busy Sunday bringing patio chairs and planters inside. She lives in a condominium complex near the Cape Cod Canal.
"I'm looking around to see what could blow in the wind and hit the windows, things like that," she said. "Everybody is hunkering down. I just hope we don't lose power."
At Bradford's Ace Hardware in Hyannis, general manager Ken Rose said the rush to get storm supplies started Wednesday and continued Sunday as the storm drew closer. Rose said he's sold hundreds of flashlights, batteries and battery-operated lanterns. Rose and his staff were also busy putting plywood up to cover up windows at the store.
"My store is two blocks from the ocean. I'm concerned, absolutely," he said. "You prepare as much as you can and it's beyond your control after that."
In Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee declared a state of emergency and Westerly officials ordered mandatory evacuations of the Misquamicut and Watch Hill beach communities and other low-lying areas.
"The flooding and the storm surge are my biggest concerns right now," Chafee said Sunday. "A big, big storm event is coming to Rhode Island."
Flooding was expected not only in Rhode Island beach towns but also in many communities along Narragansett Bay. Chafee said Providence's hurricane barrier hasn't been tested yet and he worried about where water south of the barrier would go.
In Westerly, Misquamicut Fire Chief Louis Misto said residents in Misquamicut, Watch Hill and other vulnerable areas were told to leave by 8 p.m. Sunday.
"I think the shoreline is going to take a pounding from the high surf," Misto said. "Late tomorrow, tomorrow evening, we're expecting the waves to come over the dunes. We're expecting roads to be impassible."