US President Barack Obama warned on Monday that Hurricane Sandy was a powerful storm that could cause deaths, and said his concern for now was the safety of Americans and not next week's election.
"The most important message to the public I have right now, is 'please listen to what your state and local officials are saying.' When they tell you to evacuate you need to evacuate," Obama said in a televised White House appearance.
The massive storm bashing the US East Coast froze commerce, shut down stock exchanges for the first time since the 9/11 attacks and idled millions of workers Monday, laying siege to an economy still trying to get out of first gear.
With the coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts threatened by furious winds and a potentially devastating storm surge, businesses closed, refiners shut down operations and insurers girded for a leap in damage claims.
The New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq market closed completely on Monday, and the NYSE said it would not reopen until Wednesday, "conditions permitting."
It was the first full trading shutdown since the 9/11 attacks closed US equity markets for four days in 2001, and the first full NYSE shutdown due to weather since September 1985, when it closed for a day for Hurricane Gloria.
Disaster estimator Eqecat forecast that Hurricane Sandy could cause up to $20 billion in damages, only half of them insured, as it strikes land around New Jersey and collides with another front.
"Sandy is a large storm, impacting 20% of the US population," Tom Larsen, senior vice president, said in a statement.
That could hit an economy that has been largely struggling to gather pace, with economic growth at just 2.0% in the third quarter and the government struggling to overcome an unemployment rate of 7.8%.
The storm also comes as President Barack Obama battles a strong challenge from Republican Mitt Romney, with the November 6 election offering voters a choice between the very different economic plans mapped out by the two.
Four major economic centers -- New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington -- were largely closed down, with mass transit and flights curtailed or halted completely, businesses shuttered and many office employees forced to work from home.
Banks like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs -- located in low-lying areas of Manhattan that were ordered evacuated in the face of a flooding threat -- shut their doors and transferred crucial operations to other offices.
Many companies expected to announce quarterly earnings put off the release, including Pfizer, McGraw-Hill and Thomson-Reuters.
There were widespread warnings that power would be cut to many homes and businesses, meaning that even after the mega-storm passes on Wednesday, many people would possibly still be unable to go back to work.
Hurricane Sandy was packing maximum sustained winds of nearly 90 miles (150 kilometers) per hour Monday as it headed for the US East Coast, where it was to collide with another huge front.
Storm surges were already causing flooding along the coast, with more flooding expected.
Worries that fuel could be in short supply because of the shutdown of several oil refineries along the coast were downplayed, mainly because consumption was also sharply lower as drivers stayed home.
"Gas availability could be affected more from the threats of flooding," said Stephen Rajczyk of the northern New Jersey branch of the motorists' organization AAA.
But, he added, "Prices should not be impacted by this due to less driving, businesses and schools closed, less economic activity in general."
Some played down the broader impact of the storm on the economy, saying that building, trading and shopping would resume in a burst after the storm.
"Wealth destruction is bad, and Hurricane Sandy could destroy billions in national wealth," said Jason Schenker of Prestige Economics.
"Nevertheless, while hurricanes and other natural disasters are extremely negative for wealth, they are usually positive for growth."
Hurricane Sandy, the monster storm bearing down on the East Coast, strengthened on Monday after hundreds of thousands moved to higher ground, public transport shut down and the stock market suffered its first weather-related closure in 27 years.
About 50 million people from the Mid-Atlantic to Canada were in the path of the nearly 1,000-mile-wide (1,600-km-wide) storm, which forecasters said could be the largest to hit the mainland in US history. It was expected to topple trees, damage buildings, cause power outages and trigger heavy flooding.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Monday the Category 1 storm had strengthened as it turned toward the coast and was moving at 20 miles per hour (32 km per hour).
It was expected to bring a "life-threatening storm surge," coastal hurricane winds and heavy snow in the Appalachian Mountains, the NHC said.
Nine US states have declared states of emergency, and with the US election eight days away President Barack Obama canceled a campaign event in Florida on Monday in order to return to Washington and monitor the US government's response to the storm.
"This is a serious and big storm," Obama said on Sunday after a briefing at the federal government's storm response center in Washington.
"We don't yet know where it's going to hit, where we're going to see the biggest impacts.
Sandy killed 66 people in the Caribbean last week before pounding US coastal areas with rain and triggering snow falls at higher elevations as it moved north.
Forecasting services indicated early Monday the center of the storm would strike the New Jersey shore near Atlantic City on Monday night.
While Sandy does not pack the punch of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, it could become more potent as it approaches the US coast.
Winds were at a maximum of 85 mph, the NHC said in its 8am (1200 GMT) report, up from 75 mph six hours earlier.
It said tropical storm-force winds reached as far as 485 miles from the center.
Seventeen people from the replica HMS Bounty abandoned ship while stranded at sea off North Carolina in the path of the hurricane, roughly 160 miles from the center of storm, the US Coast Guard said on Monday.
"The 17-person crew donned cold water survival suits and lifejackets before launching in two 25-man lifeboats with canopies," the Coast Guard said, adding it was determining which aircraft or vessel was best-placed to launch a rescue.
The three-masted tall ship was built for the 1962 movie Mutiny on the Bounty.
New York and other cities and towns closed their transit systems and ordered mass evacuations from low-lying areas ahead of a storm surge that could reach as high as 11 feet.
All US stock markets will be closed on Monday and possibly Tuesday, the operator of the New York Stock Exchange said late on Sunday, reversing an earlier plan that would have kept electronic trading going on Monday.
The United Nations, Broadway theaters, New Jersey casinos, schools up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and myriad corporate events were also being shut down.
'Don't be stupid'
Officials ordered people in coastal towns and low-lying areas to evacuate, often telling them they would put emergency workers' lives at risk if they stayed.
"Don't be stupid, get out, and go to higher, safer ground," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told a news conference.
Forecasters said Sandy was a rare, hybrid "super storm" created by an Arctic jet stream wrapping itself around a tropical storm, possibly causing up to 12 inches of rain in some areas, as well as up to 3 feet (1 meter) of snowfall in the Appalachian Mountains from West Virginia to Kentucky.
At 8am (1200 GMT), the NHC said Sandy was centered about 265 miles southeast of Atlantic City and about 310 miles south-southeast of New York City.
Worried residents in the hurricane's path packed stores, searching for generators, flashlights, batteries, food and other supplies in anticipation of power outages.
Nearly 284,000 residential properties valued at $88 billion are at risk for damage, risk analysts at CoreLogic said.
Transportation systems shut down in anticipation. Airlines canceled flights, bridges and tunnels closed, and national passenger rail operator Amtrak suspended nearly all service on the East Coast. The US government told non-emergency workers in Washington, DC, to stay home.
Utilities from the Carolinas to Maine reported late Sunday that a combined 14,000 customers were already without power.
The second-largest oil refinery on the East Coast, Phillips 66's 238,000 barrel per day (bpd) Bayway plant in Linden, New Jersey, was shutting down and three other plants cut output as the storm affected operations at two-thirds of the region's plants.
Oil prices slipped on Monday, with Brent near $109 a barrel.
"With refineries cutting runs, we're likely to see a build-up in crude stocks which could be driving bearish prices at the moment," said Michael Creed, an economist at National Australia Bank in Melbourne.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of some 375,000 people from low-lying areas of the city, from upscale parts of lower Manhattan to waterfront housing projects in the outer boroughs.
While Sandy's 85 mph winds were not overwhelming for a hurricane, its exceptional size means the winds will last as long as two days.
"This is not a typical storm," Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said.
"It could very well be historic in nature and in scope."
(With AFP and Reuters inputs)