With a name like "Frankenstorm," this could get ugly.
Hurricane Sandy, moving north from the Caribbean, was expected to make landfall Monday night near the Delaware coast, then hit two winter weather systems as it moves inland, creating a hybrid monster storm that could bring nearly a foot of rain, high winds and up to 2 feet of snow.
Experts said the storm would be wider and stronger than last year's Irene, which caused more than $15 billion in damage, and could rival the worst East Coast storm on record.
Officials did not mince words, telling people to be prepared for several days without electricity. Jersey Shore beach towns began issuing voluntary evacuations and protecting boardwalks
Atlantic Beach casinos made contingency plans to close, and officials advised residents of flood-prone areas to stay with family or be ready to leave. Airlines said to expect cancellations and waived change fees for passengers who want to reschedule.
"Be forewarned," said Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. "Assume that you will be in the midst of flooding conditions, the likes of which you may not have seen at any of the major storms that have occurred over the last 30 years."
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency Friday morning to help mobilize emergency response. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that wherever the storm comes ashore, there will be 10 inches of rain and extreme storm surges. Up to 2 feet of snow should fall on West Virginia, with lighter snow in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The storm threatened to hit two weeks before Election Day, while several states were heavily involved in campaigning, canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Vice President Joe Biden both canceled weekend campaign events in coastal Virginia Beach, Va., though their events in other parts of the states were going on as planned.
In Rhode Island, politicians asked supporters to take down yard signs for fear they might turn into projectiles in the storm.
With a rare mix of three big merging weather systems over a densely populated region, experts predict at least $1 billion in damage.
And if they meet Tuesday morning around New York or New Jersey, as forecasters predict, they could create a big, wet mess that settles over the nation's most heavily populated corridor and reaches as far west as Ohio.
Airlines are giving travelers a way out if they want to scrap their plans due to Hurricane Sandy.
All the major airlines are offering waivers to customers who wish to reschedule their flights without incurring the typical fee of up to $150. The offers cover passengers flying in or out of just about any airport from Latin America to New Hampshire. Most waivers for travel in the Northeast are only valid Monday through Wednesday.
The airlines have only canceled a handful of flights so far, nearly all of them in and out of Florida and the Caribbean.
They say there will be hundreds of miles of steady, strong and damaging winds and rain for the entire Eastern region for several days. That could produce a bigger wallop than last year's damaging Irene, which caused the cancellation of nearly 14,000 flights in a four-day period.
Those hoping to fly in or out of affected areas are asked to check their flight status before heading to the airport. Airlines also promise to update their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds with the latest information. To cancel, passengers should call the airline directly. Some airlines also allow changes to be made on their websites.
Passengers can expect cancellations to increase as the storm moves north over the weekend.
"Airlines and other operators generally stop flying to airports in the potential storm path long before winds reach dangerous levels," the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement.
Utilities are lining up out-of-state work crews and canceling employees' days off to deal with expected power outages. From county disaster chiefs to the federal government, emergency officials are warning the public to be prepared. And President Barack Obama was briefed aboard Air Force One.
"It's looking like a very serious storm that could be historic," said Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the forecasting service Weather Underground. "Mother Nature is not saying, `Trick or treat.' It's just going to give tricks."
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecaster Jim Cisco, who coined the nickname Frankenstorm, said: "We don't have many modern precedents for what the models are suggesting."
Government forecasters said there is a 90 percent chance -- up from 60 percent two days earlier -- that the East will get pounded.
Coastal areas from Florida to Maine will feel some effects, but the storm is expected to vent the worst of its fury on New Jersey and the New York City area, which could see around 5 inches of rain and gale-force winds close to 40 mph. Eastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania and western Virginia could get snow.
And the storm will take its time leaving. The weather may not start clearing in the mid-Atlantic until the day after Halloween and Nov. 2 in the upper Northeast, Cisco said.
"It's almost a weeklong, five-day, six-day event," he said from a NOAA forecast center in College Park, Md. "It's going to be a widespread, serious storm."
It is likely to hit during a full moon, when tides are near their highest, increasing the risk of coastal flooding. And because many trees still have their leaves, they are more likely to topple in the event of wind and snow, meaning there could be widespread power outages lasting to Election Day.
Eastern states that saw outages that lasted for days after last year's freak Halloween snowstorm and Hurricane Irene in late August 2011 are already pressuring power companies to be more ready this time.
Asked if he expected utilities to be more prepared, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick responded: "They'd better be."
Jersey Central Power & Light, which was criticized for its response to Irene, notified employees to be ready for extended shifts. In Pennsylvania, PPL Corp. spokesman Michael Wood said, "We're in a much better place this year."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Thursday said the city was striking a tone of calm preparedness.
"What we are doing is we are taking the kind of precautions you should expect us to do, and I don't think anyone should panic," Bloomberg said. The city has opened an emergency situation room and activated its coastal storm plan.
Some have compared the tempest to the so-called Perfect Storm that struck off the coast of New England in 1991, but that one hit a less populated area. Nor is this one like last year's Halloween storm, which was merely an early snowfall.
"The Perfect Storm only did $200 million of damage and I'm thinking a billion" this time, Masters said. "Yeah, it will be worse."
As it spun away from the Bahamas late Friday, Sandy was blamed for more than 43 deaths across the Caribbean. The 18th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season hit the Bahamas after cutting across Cuba, where it tore roofs off homes and damaged fragile coffee and tomato crops. It is expected to move north, just off the Eastern Seaboard.
Norje Pupo, a 66-year-old retiree in Holguin, was helping his son clean up early Thursday after an enormous tree toppled in his garden.
"The hurricane really hit us hard," he said. "As you can see, we were very affected. The houses are not poorly made here, but some may have been damaged."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.