SHIP BOTTOM, N.J. -- Forget distinctions like tropical storm or hurricane. Don't get fixated on a particular track. Wherever it hits, the rare behemoth storm inexorably gathering in the Eastern United Stats will afflict a third of the country with sheets of rain, high winds and heavy snow, say officials who are warning millions in coastal areas to get out of the way.
"We're looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people,'' said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As Hurricane Sandy barrels north from the Caribbean -- where it left nearly five-dozen dead -- to meet two powerful winter storms, experts say it doesn't matter how strong the storm is when it hits land: The rare hybrid storm that follows will cause havoc over 800 miles from the East Coast to the Great Lakes. Experts say it could be wider and stronger than last year's Hurricane Irene, which caused more than $15 billion in damage, and could rival the worst East Coast storm on record.
"This is not a coastal threat alone,'' said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "This is a very large area.''
New Jersey is set to close its casinos, New York's governor is considering shutting down the subways to avoid flooding and half a dozen states are warning residents to prepare for several days of lost power.
Sandy weakened briefly to a tropical storm early Saturday but was soon back up to Category 1 strength, packing 75 mph winds about 335 miles southeast of Charleston, S.C., as of 5 p.m. Experts said the storm was most likely to hit the southern New Jersey coastline by late Monday or early Tuesday.
Governors from North Carolina, where heavy rain was expected Sunday, to Connecticut declared states of emergency. Delaware ordered mandatory evacuations for coastal communities by 8 p.m. Saturday.
New Jersey's Chris Christie broke off campaigning for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in North Carolina on Friday to return home.
"I can be as cynical as anyone,'' the pugnacious chief executive said in a bit of understatement Saturday, "but when the storm comes, if it's as bad as they're predicting, you're going to wish you weren't as cynical as you otherwise might have been.''
The storm forced the presidential campaign to juggle schedules. Romney scrapped plans to campaign Sunday in the swing state of Virginia and switched his schedule for the day to Ohio. First lady Michelle Obama canceled an appearance in New Hampshire for Tuesday, and President Obama moved a planned Monday departure for Florida to Sunday night to beat the storm.
In Ship Bottom, just north of Atlantic City, Alice and Giovanni Stockton-Rossini spent Saturday packing clothing in the back yard of their home, a few hundred yards from the ocean on Long Beach Island. Their neighborhood was under a voluntary evacuation order, but they didn't need to be forced.
"It's really frightening,'' Alice Stockton-Rossi said. "But you know how many times they tell you, 'This is it, it's really coming and it's really the big one' and then it turns out not to be? I'm afraid people will tune it out because of all the false alarms before, and the one time you need to take it seriously, you won't. This one might be the one.''
A few blocks away, Russ Linke was taking no chances. He and his wife secured the patio furniture, packed the bicycles into the pickup truck, and headed off the island.
"I've been here since 1997, and I never even put my barbecue grill away during a storm," he said, "but I am taking this one seriously."
After Irene left millions without power, utility companies were taking no chances with this storm and were lining up extra crews and tree-trimmers. On Friday and Saturday, several convoys of utility trucks were seen headed north on Interstate 79 in West Virginia in preparation for the storm. Expected high winds could topple power lines, and trees that still have leaves could be weighed down by snow and fall over under the added weight.
What makes the storm so dangerous and unusual is that it is coming at the tail end of hurricane season and the beginning of winter storm season, "so it's kind of taking something from both,'' said Jeff Masters, director of the private service Weather Underground.
Masters said the storm could be bigger than the worst East Coast storm on record -- the 1938 New England hurricane known as the Long Island Express, which killed nearly 800 people. "Part hurricane, part nor'easter -- all trouble,'' he said.
Experts say to expect high winds over 800 miles and up to 2 feet of snow as far inland as West Virginia.
And the storm is so big, and the convergence of the three storms so rare, that "we just can't pinpoint who is going to get the worst of it,'' said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami.