"I got a call from a friend of mine from Florida last night who said, 'Mark, get out! If it's not the storm, it'll be the aftermath. People are going to be fighting in the streets over gasoline and food.'"

President Barack Obama declared emergencies in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, authorizing federal relief work to begin well ahead of time. He promised the government would "respond big and respond fast" after the storm hits.

"My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape," Obama said. "We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules."

Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane with sustained winds of 85 mph early Monday, was blamed for 65 deaths in the Caribbean before it began traveling northward, parallel to the Eastern Seaboard. As of 8 a.m. Monday, it was centered about 310 miles southeast of New York City, moving to the north at 20 mph, with hurricane-force winds extending an extraordinary 175 miles from its center.

Water was already a foot deep on the streets of Lindenhurst, N.Y., along the southern edge of Long Island, and the canals around the island's Great South Bay were bulging two hours before high tide. Gale-force winds blew overnight over coastal North Carolina, southeastern Virginia, the Delmarva Peninsula and coastal New Jersey.

Forecasters warned that New York City and Long Island could be on the dangerous northeastern edge of the tempest and bear the worst of the storm surge -- a wall of seawater up to 11 feet high that could swamp lower Manhattan, flood subway tunnels and cripple the network of electrical and communications lines that are vital to the nation's financial center.

The major American stock exchanges closed for the day, the first unplanned shutdown since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. The floor of the NYSE, typically bustling with traders on a Monday morning, fell within the city's mandatory evacuation zone. The United Nations canceled all meetings at its New York headquarters.

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