WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY -- Super storm Sandy is threatening a pre-Halloween strike strong enough to make the northern suburbs forget the awful pre-Halloween snowstorm in 2011 that left five people dead and a record 170,000 addresses without power.
"We have been in meetings all day with our highway superintendents and our officials in the bureau of emergency services and emergency management," said Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell. "We have already been in touch with the governor's office about having a direct (telephone) line open to us as well as having cell numbers for NYSEG and Central Hudson."
Unseasonably strong winds and pounding rain could begin hitting the region as early as Sunday, but the bulk of the storm, complete with high tides and possibly even snow are expected early Tuesday, according to the latest forecasts.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for New York on Friday, noting the declaration gets emergency crews ready for deployment to wherever there may be extensive damage.
"We want to make sure we're ready just in case," Cuomo told reporters on Long Island.
He said the state will be prepared to call on the National Guard when the storm hits.
By Friday, Sandy had been blamed for 20 deaths as it made its way across the Caribbean. The storm hit the Bahamas after cutting across Cuba, where it tore roofs off homes.
With a rare mix of three big merging weather systems over a densely populated region, experts predict at least $1 billion in damage across the east coast of the United States.
The stage is set as Hurricane Sandy blows north from Haiti and Cuba. A wintry storm is chugging across the country from the west. And frigid air is streaming south from Canada.
"We don't have many modern precedents for what the models are suggesting," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecaster Jim Cisco, who coined the nickname Frankenstorm.
Government forecasters said there is a 90 percent chance - up from 60 percent two days earlier - that large swaths of the East Coast 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 5 inches of rain and gale-force winds of 40 mph.
Locally, the fear of heavy rains and swelling tides drove officials in coastal areas to act.
Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano declared a state of emergency in his the city and warned that Sandy's impact could be substantial.
"We expect that it will be a dangerous storm," he said.
In flood-prone Rye, crews were checking construction sites, catch basins and other areas to prevent debris from being strewn around during a storm. Dumpsters, benches and wood from a dock-building project were secured.
"Today's a day to clean up and tie down," City Manager Scott Pickup said.
Rye was hit hard last year by Tropical Storm Irene, and motorists often become stranded in storms after pulling off Interstate-95 in search of safety, Pickup said.
Elsewhere, fears were focused on the impact of possible widespread power outages and downed trees.
"Last year Lewisboro got hit badly, but others areas did not," said Peter Parsons, the supervisor of Lewisboro, where people waited as long as nine days to get power back after the Oct. 29 snowstorm last year. "But the sheer size of this storm in terms of geography is so massive that all the emergency vehicles in the world are going to need a lot of time to work their way through."
Con Edison officials said Friday they were tracking Sandy as the storm moved north, staying in touch with emergency officials in Westchester and lining up back-up crews from out of state.
"All company personnel and field crews are preparing for high winds, heavy rains, and flooding conditions that could wallop electric, gas and steam systems when the storm moves into New York City and Westchester County," the utility said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for New York State Electric and Gas, which delivers power to northern Westchester and much of Putnam, warned of the possibility of significant service disruptions.
"If this storm hits as forecasted, people should expect extensive and extended power outages," spokesman Jim Salmon said.
Mike Donovan, a spokesman for Orange and Rockland Utilities, said the company has stockpiled warehouses and staging areas with wire, poles and transformers and has also contracted for extra help from companies and independent contractors from outside the impact zone, with as many as 400 additional crews signed up.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation requested United Water New York to begin releasing additional water from the Lake DeForest Reservoir in Clarkstown. The company has been asked to increase the amount it is releasing from about 9.75 million gallons per day to about 60 to 80 million gallons a day, United Water New York vice president and general manager, Michael Pointing, said.
In the past, downstream neighbors have criticized United Water for failing to lower the reservoir's level prior to a major storm's arrival and causing their homes to flood.
Gordon Wren Jr., Rockland's director of Fire and Emergency Services, said local fire departments were testing pumps, generators and other equipment and that the concern was that the storm could park itself over the region for a prolonged period.
"We're taking it very seriously," Wren said. "It's still far out, but whichever way it does track, we're going to be affected."
And the storm will take its time leaving. The weather may not start clearing in the mid-Atlantic until the day after Halloween and could linger in the upper Northeast until Nov. 2, 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."
Typical commutes early next week may be out of the question for railroad riders.
The MTA Hurricane Plan calls for service to be shut down ahead of the bad weather where sustained winds stronger than 39 mph are predicted, for example.
"The MTA is taking no chances with the safety of our customers, our employees and our equipment," said MTA Chairman and CEO Joseph J. Lhota. "We are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst."
Rob Ryser, The News Journal - The Associated Press and staff writers Michael Risinit, Theresa Juva, Joseph Spector, Leah Rae, Colin Gustafson, James O’Rourke and Laura Incalcaterra contributed to this article