As Hurricane Sandy swirled toward the Eastern Seaboard Friday after killing at least 40 people in the Caribbean, Massachusetts braced for a fearsome storm with the potential to pummel the region with torrential rain and high winds.
The late-season hurricane, which moved slowly north after ripping through the Bahamas, was projected to make landfall early Tuesday near the border of Delaware and New Jersey, bringing the threat of widespread flooding and power outages to much of the Northeast. But forecasters said it could take a more northerly track, coming ashore in New York or Connecticut, that would inflict far more damage to the region.
Now a Category 1 storm, Sandy could also collide with a strong cold front to create an unusually destructive mix, an extreme combination that forecasters have dubbed “Frankenstorm.”
On its projected path, the massive storm is expected to cause power outages, flooding, and erosion. But a more direct strike could also bring more than 8 inches of rain and hurricane-strength winds, emergency officials warned.
“In this scenario, impact from Sandy could be comparable to, or even worse than, past events such as Tropical Storm Irene, Hurricane Bob, or the 1991 ‘Perfect Storm,’ ” a state emergency advisory warned Friday.
It’s clear to the ‘utilities that they are under strict scrutiny on their response to this particular storm’
While Sandy’s precise path remains unclear, emergency officials Friday prepared for the worst. Power companies, warned by the Patrick administration to improve their storm response or face stiff fines, dispatched crews across New England in preparation and called in extra workers from out of state. To improve communication with residents, businesses, and town officials, National Grid said it planned to assign company liaisons to storm-damaged communities.
In Boston, workers trimmed trees around power lines and cleaned catch basins in anticipation of heavy rains. Coastal towns worked to clear harbors and shore up seawalls, and on Plum Island in Newburyport, workers began dredging sand to reinforce the fragile barrier beach.
In Gloucester, city officials urged families to celebrate Halloween on Sunday, before the storm arrives in force.
“We are urging neighbors to have children celebrate early in good weather, without concern for public safety issues that might arise as a result of the storm,” said Carolyn Kirk, mayor of Gloucester.
Forecasters said that no matter where it hits the coast, Sandy will leave its mark.
“We are going to be impacted by this storm,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham. “It’s a very large storm and it is going to be impacting an awful lot of the East Coast.”
On Friday night, the storm was 400 miles south-southeast of Charleston, S.C., with sustained winds as strong as 75 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center reported. A tropical storm watch was in effect for the northern part of Florida to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina.
Dunham said Sandy’s projected path is unusual. While most tropical storms move straight north or go out to sea when they encounter colder air, Sandy is expected to turn sharply toward the coast. Forecasters and emergency officials urged the public to be prepared.
“The bottom line is: Don’t ignore this storm,” Dunham said.
As forecasters tracked the storm, Governor Deval Patrick and other state officials said they expect improved response from utility companies, which have been criticized for long outages and poor communication in past storms.
“It it very clear to all of the utilities that they are under strict scrutiny on their response to this particular storm,’’ said Richard Sullivan Jr., the state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary. “We are expecting that the level of services will be much higher.’’
Sullivan said the state has toughened financial penalties for poor response to storms that are forecast well in advance.
This summer, state Attorney General Martha Coakley, urged state regulators to fine National Grid $16 million for its response in 2011 to Tropical Storm Irene and a surprise October snowstorm. She called for NStar to be fined $9.7 million.
“It’s Mother Nature, so it’s not entirely predictable,’’ Patrick said. “But the things that we’ve observed from the last two storms should be lessons that we are planning against. And I think that all of the utilities have certainly heard that.”
Marcy Reed, president of National Grid’s Massachusetts operations, vowed improvements.
“In 2011, we really heard the frustration from our customers, from both Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm, and we learned a lot of lessons from that,” she said. “We didn’t meet their expectations and we didn’t meet our own expectations. So we’re going to prove this time that we are completely prepared.”
Reed said community liaisons would help get the word out about the status of repairs and when power could be expected to return. “They will be mano-a-mano right there in the town,” Reed said.
At the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, workers had taken down 3 miles of fences because of expected high tides, but were waiting for more precise forecasts before taking further steps.
“Sometimes it’s much ado about nothing. We do all this prep and then there’s nothing,” said Jean Adams, the refuge’s recreation planner. “But that’s also the best-case scenario; to be prepared for nothing.”
The storm is bad news for the state’s already fragile lobster business, as high seas and strong winds probably will hurt business and damage expensive gear.
Many fishermen are bringing in their traps or running them into deeper water to prevent them from being tossed among waves or thrashed into rocks, said Bill Adler, who directs the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
Lobstermen are also securing their boats to minimize damage from the approaching storm.
After a summer during which they received rock-bottom prices for their haul, many are trying to extend the season to offset their losses.
“A lot of these guys have to keep going because of the low prices this year,” Adler said. “They have to make ends meet.”
In Hingham, as in other seacoast towns, officials warned residents to be on high alert.
“It could be a very serious storm and it could be a long-duration storm,” said Mark Duff, the town’s fire chief. “Normally, with a hurricane you’re talking a 10-hour event. But this could be a 24-hour event or longer.”