By RANDALL CHASE and DAVID DISHNEAU
LEWES, Del. - Residents across the mid-Atlantic spent Sunday preparing for a potentially miserable week as slow-moving Hurricane Sandy bore down on the coast, threatening floods, widespread power outages and property damage.
The storm threatened to bring as much as a foot of rain, winds of up to 80 mph and a wall of water 4 to 11 feet high to coastal areas. In the Baltimore-Washington area, meanwhile, governments, schools and transit systems announced they were closing Monday in anticipation of the worst.
In Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell encouraged motorists to cease any non-emergency travel beginning at 8 p.m. Sunday. By then, however, most roads in the southern Delaware coastal area already were deserted. Only a handful of cars rolled along Route 1 in Rehoboth, a major north-south artery that is often bumper-to-bumper during the summer tourist season.
By the time a 24-hour mandatory evacuation period for low-lying coastal areas had expired at 8 p.m., the Red Cross shelter at Cape Henlopen High School in Lewes had taken in only about 80 evacuees, well below its capacity.
"Now, the National Guard will start bringing them in," shelter manager Rick Stevenson predicted. "Anybody who was able to drive is already here."
Lynne Dougherty, 75, decided to stay at her home in Pot-Nets, a manufactured home community within the southern Delaware evacuation zone, even though many neighbors had left the area along the Indian River Bay.
"I'm staying put. Tomorrow may be a different story," said Dougherty, who didn't like the idea of being separated from her three cats in a Red Cross shelter.
"I am very stubborn," she admitted.
By early Sunday evening, water already was pooling on some roads in the Long Neck area where Dougherty lives. Wind-driven waves in the Rehoboth Bay spilled into the parking lot of the state-run boat ramp at Masseys Landing.
Markell had ordered the evacuation of 50,000 coastal residents. And when the Red Cross shelter in Lewes opened at noon Sunday, people were lining up outside.
Among the first in line were Hugh Phillips, 69, and his wife, Martha, 61, both of whom walk with canes. The couple lives in the Long Neck area of Sussex County, an area prone to flooding.
"We were told to get the heck out," Hugh Phillips said. "I was going to stay, but it's better to be safe than sorry."
Others, meanwhile, decided to defy the order and stay put.
"I think it's going to be an annoying rain storm," said Jeff Zeller, a salesman from Pennsylvania who planned to ride out the storm in his summer home in Lewes, near Rehoboth Beach. He stocked up with two cases of Heineken beer and bottled water.
Sandy was headed north from the Caribbean, where it left more than five dozen people dead. It was expected to hook west toward the mid-Atlantic coast and come ashore late Monday or early Tuesday, most likely in New Jersey, colliding with a wintry storm from the west and cold air streaming down from the Arctic.
Forecasters warned that the resulting megastorm could wreak havoc across 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes.
In more populous northern Delaware, about 3,000 residents of flood-prone south Wilmington were also told to evacuate.
Bobbie Foote, a 58-year-old fitness coach, said she would ride out the storm at her daughter's home in nearby Newark. It will be the first time she has fled a storm threatening the apartment building that has been her home for at least 40 years in the working-class neighborhood near the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia.
"My daughter insists that I leave this time," said Foote, who stayed last year when flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene blocked streets at either end of the neighborhood. "She said I should never put myself in that predicament where I cannot get in or out of where I live."
President Barack Obama signed an emergency declaration for Maryland and the District of Columbia, allowing federal agencies to help the local government respond to the storm.
The Washington area was mostly shutting down ahead of the storm. Federal, state and local offices will be closed Monday. The Washington Metro subway and bus system will be closed, as will the Maryland Transit Administration's subway, light rail, and MARC trains and buses. School children will get a day off.
"This storm is unique, large, dangerous and unlike anything the region has experienced before," Gray said.
Officials warned that sustained winds of 30 mph or greater were expected in the capital region for a 24-hour period beginning at around 8 a.m. Monday.