Bracing for Sandy

Pennsylvania remained in Hurricane Sandy's crosshairs Sunday, with forecasters predicting a one-two punch of wind and rain to start hitting the Lehigh Valley late tonight.

Although a degree of uncertainty remains about the storm's precise path, there is little doubt that it will strike most of the mid-Atlantic region at the same time as a winter storm from the west and an arctic air mass from Canada move into the area.

"It's going to be one those storms you'll remember," said National Weather Service meteorologist Valerie Meola.

The combination of weather patterns could create a hybrid storm of historical proportions based on its estimated size and duration, meteorologists said. Tropical-storm force winds will extend from the Carolinas to southern New England and could swirl over the northeast until Wednesday.

Sandy, which was briefly downgraded to a tropical storm Saturday morning before regaining hurricane strength, was churning north in the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast late Saturday. Its maximum winds were clocked at 75 mph, the minimum for hurricane status, although higher gusts were recorded.

"Little overall change in strength is forecast during the next couple of days," according to a National Weather Service report Saturday.

The storm was on track Saturday night to make landfall around Cape May Courthouse late Monday night or early Tuesday, according to the Weather Service. But strong winds and torrential rains will be felt long before Sandy's eye crosses the coast.

The Weather Service predicts 4-8 inches of rain and winds gusting more than 50 mph, with the worst of the weather expected to strike the Lehigh Valley on Monday and continue Tuesday.

Mike Mark of Whitehall Township was taking the storm seriously Saturday afternoon as he wheeled a cart full of bottled water and frozen pizza to his SUV at the Wegmans in Hanover Township, Northampton County.

"It's just to be safe," Mark said, patting the cases of water in the cart. "I'd rather have two cases of beer."

Mark also gassed up and checked his generator in case the storm knocks out power to his home. He said he bought one last year after Hurricane Irene thumped the region.

"I'm a ex-Boy Scout," Mark said, "I'm always prepared."

Inside Wegmans, Sandy's impact could be seen on the bare shelves in the water aisle — though bottled water was available in other parts of the store. Bread remained plentiful, though most varieties of peanut butter were scarce.

Sandy's still uncertain path will dictate what areas sustain the greatest impact. More rain will fall to the south and west of the storm's eye, while wind-driven storm surges — exacerbated by a full moon Monday — will be most severe north and east of the eye, Meola said.

One early prediction that the union of Arctic air and tropical moisture would bring copious amounts of snow to Pennsylvania is unlikely to pan out, she added.

Up to two feet of snow, however, is forecast for parts of West Virginia and western North Carolina, the weather service said.

Flooding may make driving difficult Monday morning when streams may start spilling their banks and water may pool on streets. Significant river flooding across Pennsylvania is likely to follow, forecasters said.

The flooding situation is not as dire as it was when Irene struck last September, Meola said. Irene was preceded by weeks of wet weather, but now the ground is dry and river levels are relatively low.

With the flooding and extended power outages after Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and a freak Halloween snowstorm last fall fresh in their minds, many Lehigh Valley residents are spending the weekend preparing for the worst.

Chris Shala was raising cases of beer and new coolers as high above the floor as he could get them at Kicker's Pub on West Main Street in Bath Saturday, after Lee's rains destroyed his old coolers. Last year, the sump pumps in the historic tavern's basement were no match for the Monocacy Creek, which spilled its banks and settled three feet high in the pub.