Storm Sandy heads for US after killing 44 in Caribbean

After leaving 44 people dead in the Caribbean, hurricane Sandy was downgraded to a tropical storm today as it inched toward the US East Coast, threatening to wreak havoc on a large slice of the country in the final week of an election campaign.

What has been dubbed "Frankenstorm" was expected to make landfall somewhere between Virginia and Massachusetts during the frenzied final week of campaigning in advance of the November 6 presidential, congressional and local vote.

Concern is mounting that storm damage and power outages could have a major impact on voter turnout, polling station readiness, and last-minute campaigning by President Barack Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney.

US Vice President Joe Biden cancelled an appearance today in Virginia Beach to allow officials to focus on storm preparations and Romney did the same.

Forecasters predicted the storm could collide early next week with a seasonal "nor'easter" weather system that would super-charge it while dragging it west on to land and hitting states such as Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and even inland Ohio.

Before then, Sandy is expected to lumber up the coast as a huge, slow-moving system while the eastern United States braces for huge tidal surges, power outages, inland flooding and even heavy snowfall on high ground far from the coast.

As emergency response teams and frightened families stocked up on essential supplies, meteorologists said Sandy could affect as much as a third of the country, from the Carolinas up to New England and as far inland as Ohio.

"It is going to be a challenging storm," Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate said, as officials warned it was too early to say when and where the storm would make its initial landfall.

"We know somebody is going to get hit. We just cannot say who that somebody is going to be," said James Franklin, branch chief of the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC), during a telephone press conference yesterday.

Meteorologists have nicknamed the unusual confluence of weather patterns a "Frankenstorm," because it will hit just before Halloween on October 31 and is composed of parts from different sources, as was Frankenstein's Monster.

The sprawling US Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia said it was sending an entire fleet of ships out to sea to get out of the way of the storm.

Further north, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, said the city was ready for anything Sandy could throw at it, and cautioned against panic.

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