NOAA/NASA

And that's the "conservative estimate," according to a Johns Hopkins engineer.

Beside leaving supermarkets absolutely barren of staples – not to mention life's greatest necessity, alcohol (I myself saw a woman frantically trying to load her cart with Trader Joe's entire wine shelf here in D.C.) – people up and down the East Coast spent Sunday sucking gas stations dry. And folks are right to be preparing for the worst, with the prognosis for Hurricane Sandy's path herding it straight into the most densely populated parts of the U.S. Northeast:


(Forecast track generated late Sunday night by the National Hurricane Center.)

Sandy is tearing it up with a cold front right now, exchanging its past source of energy (warm ocean waters) for a fierce new one (atmospheric temperature contrasts). The resulting Category 1 cyclone looks like a hurricane inside of a nor'easter packing a dangerous wind field of hundreds of square miles. When it makes landfall around Monday evening, possibly in southern New Jersey, the prolonged gusts are sure to knock out power for many. Windows, too: New York City's weather-service office is advising people to board or tape up their glass in advance of Sandy's raucous debut.

Over at the Johns Hopkins University, an engineer named Seth Guikema is predicting that 10 million people could lose electricity from northern Virginia up to New Jersey. Compare that to the 6.7 million left without juice during 2011's Hurricane Irene. To make you feel better, Guikema says that 10 million is a "conservative estimate." Here's the power-outage-risk map that his team produced this weekend:

Look at the sheer volume of humanity potentially living in the dark, for days, and you'll understand why electric utilities are preparing for Armageddon. In just one example, my old colleague Ryan Miller obtained this photo showing an "average of 28 power/tree trucks every 10 miles heading East on I-80 through Pennsylvania." Good luck, fellas.

To comprehend how big of a blower Sandy is, take a gander at its past and future. When it cruised by southern Florida last week, it kicked up waves so powerful that they chewed a vertical four-foot chunk out of the beach. The East Coast's largest cities have already suspended their public-transit systems, not wanting to deal with a hellish two days of 35 to 45 m.p.h. lashings with the occasional bonus punch of up to 70 m.p.h.

The federal government has decided to stay home on Monday. Parts of every borough in New York are quiet right now, thanks to mandatory evacuation zones imposed on coastal neighborhoods.

Now, the future. The National Hurricane Center is warning of an approaching dome of water in the ocean fueled by Sandy's boundless energy: "SANDY EXPECTED TO BRING LIFE-THREATENING STORM SURGE FLOODING TO THE MID-ATLANTIC COAST... INCLUDING LONG ISLAND SOUND AND NEW YORK HARBOR." Predictions of how high this tidal surge will be run from 2 to 4 feet in the lower Chesapeake Bay, 4 to 8 feet near the ghost town that is Ocean City, and an incredible 6 to 11 feet in New York.

The weather whizzes at NASA are also smelling trouble. They note that Sandy's pressure dropped to 951 millibars on Sunday morning, spurring the development of an eyewall. "When a storm's atmospheric pressure drops by a large amount as Sandy has done," they say, "it's a sign the storm is strengthening tremendously." This satellite image from NASA and NOAA shows why the tempest is exploding. The line of clouds over the Appalachian Mountains is the cold front rushing east to give support to the still-offshore storm (this shot is from Sunday afternoon):


(NASA/NOAA)

More than 65 people have already died in the Caribbean because of this massive storm. You can learn how to stay safe by reading this prep guide, which includes good advice like not driving through flooded streets and not running a gasoline generator indoors.

(Top satellite photo courtesy of the GOES Project.)

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