POINT PLEASANT BEACH, N.J. — From the lowest lying areas of the Jersey shore, where residents were already being encouraged to leave, to the state's northern highlands, where sandbags were being filled and cars moved into parking lots on high ground, New Jersey began preparing in earnest Friday for Hurricane Sandy.
The storm, blamed for at least 20 deaths in the Caribbean, was feared to be capable of causing record flooding and $1 billion in damages in New Jersey alone. A projection Friday night by the National Hurricane Center had the storm veering inland just south of New Jersey on Tuesday, but all of the state would still be hit by its force.
The Cape May County emergency management office issued voluntary evacuation orders for Friday and Saturday for barrier islands. Those evacuation orders will become mandatory on Sunday. Long Beach Island issued a similar voluntary order later in the day.
In Ocean County, the beachfront town of Mantoloking also issued a voluntary evacuation order on Friday, and several other shore towns were considering doing likewise. Belmar had already begun limiting access to its oceanfront drive.
In Pompton Lakes, town workers were handing out sandbags to residents of flood-prone neighborhoods, and Manville planned to activate its reverse 911 system Friday night, urging people to take precautions as the storm drew nearer.
Allie and Ocxen Bohossian live across the street from the Passaic River in Pompton Lakes; their home was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene last year as water pushed their car through the wall and into their basement. After 11 months of repairs and hassling with insurance companies, they finally moved back in early August.
"We are on the fringes of panicking," Ocxen said, standing near a flat-screen TV tuned to the Weather Channel. "We just moved back in two months ago. We just started. We're still unpacking. Look. That's my new desk. We just got new bookshelves."
Allie Bohossian said she still has nightmares over what happened during Irene: seeing the car come through the house, being rescued by boat — an ordeal that kept the couple separated from their 8-year-old son Noah for an hour and a half — and coming back to a moldy home and having her foot go through the saturated floor.
"It's just really frightening to think this is going to happen again," she said.
There were long lines for gasoline and groceries in Hamilton Township, outside Trenton, and hardware stores across the state reported a run on people filling propane tanks in case they needed to cook on grills. An Ace Hardware store had 150 generators in its warehouse on Thursday; by Friday afternoon, they had all been sold.
Forecasters were predicting Sandy, already responsible for dozens of deaths in the Caribbean, would hook up with two other weather systems, bringing heavy rain, high winds and flooding to the East Coast.
The National Hurricane Center on Friday predicted Sandy would pass over Delaware area as a tropical storm late Monday or early Tuesday. By 2 p.m. Tuesday, the center of the storm is projected to be in Maryland. But tropical storm-force winds and rain are likely to extend for 275 miles in all directions, and as far west as Ohio and West Virginia.
"The takeaway message is that our region is currently in the path of a very dangerous storm," said Gary Szatkowski, a meteorologist with the Philadelphia/Mount Holly office of the National Weather Service. "Even if the eventual path changes, we will still feel dire effects from this storm."
Sandy is heading north after pounding the Caribbean. A wintry storm from the west and frigid air from Canada could merge with it next week, creating a meteorological mess. Forecasters say New Jersey could get 5 to 10 inches of rain, winds approaching 60 mph, and record-setting coastal and river flooding.
Gov. Chris Christie, who was on his way back to the state from a political trip to North Carolina, urged residents to prepare for a "serious storm."
Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management, said the storm could be worse than Tropical Storm Irene last year.
"This is a very serious situation where it appears at this point that the western part of the state will be affected, too," she said. "If it stays on track, we'll be on northern end of the storm, which is the worst place to be. The whole state will be impacted in some way."
The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America said last year that Irene caused $915 million in insured damages in New Jersey. If Sandy is a worse storm, that figure could easily soar past $1 billion.
The state DEP banned harvesting shellfish from 720,000 acres of coastal and inland waterways until after the storm, fearing the massive rainfall would wash harmful bacteria into the water that could affect clams, oysters and mussels.
Residents were taking scary warnings about Sandy seriously.
Boat owners pulled their vessels out of the water. Workers removed the canopy from a boardwalk merry-go-round in Point Pleasant Beach. And boardwalk arcades were sandbagged.
Atlantic City's casinos made contingency plans for possibly having to close, like they did for three days last year when Tropical Storm Irene approached.
And utilities, still smarting over widespread criticism of their performance after Irene and a freak October snowstorm last year that left thousands without power for days on end, were calling in extra workers and lining up replacement crews from other states.
If Sandy makes landfall over the state as a hurricane it would be only the third one to do so in the last 200 years and the first since 1903.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
Associated Press writers Katie Zezima in Pompton Lakes, David Porter in Newark and Angela Delli Santi in Trenton contributed to this story.