Hurricane Sandy, one of the biggest storms ever to hit the U.S., could still have hurricane-force winds of at least 75 mph when it reaches New York City later Monday, forecasters said.
The storm surge, "is already at Irene levels," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a late morning news conference, referring to last summer’s tropical storm.
While the center of the storm was not expected to make landfall until Monday night near Atlantic City, it was already creating dangerous conditions and forcing rescue workers into action.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the Category 1 storm had strengthened as it turned toward the coast and was moving at 18 miles per hour and it was expected to bring a "life-threatening storm surge."
By 11 a.m., Sandy was about 205 miles southeast of Atlantic City and about 260 miles south-southeast of New York City, the National Weather Service said. Its maximum sustained winds had increased to 85 mph, up 10 mph from 2 a.m., and was moving inland north to northwest toward south central New Jersey at 20 mph, an increase of 5 mph from its 5 a.m. speed, the National Weather Service said.
And more strengthening is possible as Sandy transitions into "a wintertime low-pressure system" before landfall, the hurricane center said.
The potentially historic storm is sure to bring significant coastal flooding, bursts of heavy rain and powerful winds, forecasters said.
Meteorologist David Stark of the National Weather Service said the hurricane's increased force early Monday was expected, as the storm pushed inland and interacted with other systems.
Stark said the combination of high winds, gusting to 85 mph in some instances, and coastal flooding made the hurricane a life-threatening event.
"As the winds pick up this afternoon and you get waters from 6 feet to 11 feet from high tides backed by storm surges, you have the potential for downed power lines and downed trees," Stark said. "That's a cause for concern and reason to seek shelter.
"You don't want to see people out in those conditions."
The storm caused hundreds of flights into and out of New York City to be canceled by Sunday night, leaving normally bustling JFK, LaGuardia and Newark airports open but nearly deserted.
All mass transit in and out of New York City was also canceled, and the Holland and Brooklyn Battery Tunnels were scheduled to close at 2 p.m. Monday.