Monster hurricane Sandy leaves death in its wake as New York and US east coast braces for impact
Two people from a tall ship caught in Hurricane Sandy are missing after the crew was forced to abandon it amid fierce winds and high seas.
US Coast Guard helicopters rescued 14 others from lifeboats launched after HMS Bounty ran into trouble off North Carolina.
The search is continuing for the remaining two. The director of the HMS Bounty Organisation, Tracie Simonin, said the ship left Connecticut last week for Florida. She said the crew had been in constant contact with the National Hurricane Centre and tried to go around the storm.
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The ship is a replica of the one made famous in the 1960 film "Mutiny on the Bounty," and it was used in that film. It was also used in the film "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."
Sandy has already claimed more than 50 lives in the Caribbean
More than 50 million Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy were today waiting and hoping as the storm bore down on the East Coast's largest cities.
It forced the closure of financial markets and public transport, sending coastal residents fleeing inland for safety.
Sandy strengthened before dawn and stayed on a predicted path toward New York, Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia - putting it on a collision course with two other weather systems that would create a superstorm with the potential for havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. Up to three feet of snow was forecast for mountainous parts of West Virginia.
Airports closed, and authorities warned that the time for evacuation was running out or already gone. Many workers planned to stay home as subways, buses and trains shut down across the region under the threat of flooding that could inundate tracks and tunnels. Widespread power failures were anticipated.
The centre of the storm was positioned to come ashore early tomorrow morning European time in New Jersey, meaning the worst of the surge could be in the northern part of that state and in New York and on Long Island. Higher tides brought by a full moon compounded the threat to the metropolitan area of about 20 million people.
As rain from the leading edges began to fall over the north-east on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people from Maryland to Connecticut were ordered to leave low-lying coastal areas.
President Barack Obama declared emergencies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, authorising federal relief work to begin well ahead of time. He promised the government would "respond big and respond fast" after the storm hits.
He cancelled a campaign appearance in Florida to stay in Washington and monitor the storm, with Election Day just a week away.
Authorities warned that New York could get hit with a surge of seawater that could swamp parts of lower Manhattan, flood subway tunnels and cripple the network of electrical and communications lines that are vital to the nation's financial centre.
Major US financial markets, including the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and CME Group in Chicago, planned a rare shutdown the United Nations also closed.
New York shut all train, bus and subway services. More than five million passenger a day depend on the transit system.
"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," mayor Michael Bloomberg warned. "This is a serious and dangerous storm."
Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 85 mph was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began travelling northward.
It was expected to hook inland, colliding with a wintry storm moving in from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic, and then cut across into Pennsylvania and travel up through New York state.
Airlines cancelled nearly 7,500 flights and Amtrak began suspending train service across the north-east.
About 90 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, 17 people abandoned a replica of the tall ship made famous in the film "Mutiny on the Bounty" after the vessel began taking on water.
The Coast Guard was trying to decide whether to use ships or helicopters to rescue the crew, who were in two lifeboats and were wearing survival suits and life jackets.