State and local officials Saturday stressed the severity of Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit the region Sunday night, and the need for residents to evacuate if they are in dangerous areas.

Officials hoped residents would overcome any storm-preparation fatigue due to other recent weather events and heed warnings of Sandy’s possible effects, especially along the islands.

An evacuation of all New Jersey barrier islands is in effect for 4 p.m. Sunday, and people will not be allowed to re-enter for an indefinite period of time, as forecasts say high winds and heavy rain could last through much of Monday.

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Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson stressed the dangers of the approaching storm during a news conference Saturday and hoped people would not compare the situation to Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

“This is the one we’ve been fearing throughout the history of our area,” he said. “This is our worst-case scenario.”

Levinson said this storm is much more serious than Irene. Most major storms come through this area very quickly, but Levinson said Sandy will move very slowly and that rain would remain in the area through Wednesday.

He said he hopes people evacuate. He feared people would think back to last year and feel an evacuation would be unnecessary.

“This storm is of historic proportions,” he said.

Levinson encouraged residents to leave as soon as possible to avoid heavy traffic on evacuation routes.

In anticipation of Irene, an evacuation was ordered along the islands and the mainland east of Route 9. Officials said last year’s storm was projected to travel along the coast and that those areas would be the hardest hit.

But Sandy’s path is expected to hit the entire county, officials said.

Gov. Chris Christie told residents Saturday that they should not underestimate Sandy’s power.

“I know we get cynical about this stuff, but we can’t afford to be,” he said at a news conference Saturday afternoon in North Wildwood.

Christie said last year’s evacuation for Irene was justified despite the storm not ending up nearly as bad as predicted.

“I don’t think it’s too big of an inconvenience to try and save your life,” Christie said.

He said mandatory evacuations will take effect on all the state’s barrier islands Sunday and bridges will be blocked starting at 4 p.m. Atlantic City casinos will also be evacuated.

Tolls on the Atlantic City Expressway and Garden State Parkway will be waived starting at 6 a.m. Sunday and maybe earlier if traffic was heavy Saturday night, Christie said.

He said President Barack Obama reached out to him Saturday, and they expect to be in contact as the emergency progresses.

Officials advised making plans to stay with family and friends for several days. They warn of flooding along rivers and of power outages in the area. In addition, lawns should be cleared of all leaves to avoid clogging storm drains, which will add to the flooding.

Other tips from local agencies included having enough food for several days, gassing up cars, gathering supplies, including prescription medicines, having cash on hand, reviewing evacuation routes and checking on the elderly and those with special needs, letting people know where you are staying and bringing in any loose furniture from outside.

“We are not sure what you will go home to or if you will go home to anything,” Levinson said.

Marshall Moss, vice president of forecasting at AccuWeather, said the storm is unprecedented and will be much worse than Irene.

“It’s not really a hurricane. It’s being called a hurricane because that gets people’s attention, but when it comes to the coast, it will really be a very powerful nor’easter,” he said.

Hurricanes usually have a very strong center, and the rain and wind is weaker farther out, Moss said. But this storm will be hundreds of miles wide, and its impact will be consistent throughout, he said.

Sandy’s reach will be between Virginia and Long Island, Moss said. The storm could hit land anywhere between the Delmarva Peninsula and Long Island, but Moss said the focus right now for the storm is southern and central New Jersey.

The storm could have sustained winds of 40 to 60 mph and gusts between 60 and 80 mph, Moss said. Some areas could have gusts higher than 80 mph, he said. As much as 12 inches of rain could fall during the storm, and, coupled with very high tides, could cause a lot of flooding, he said.

Moss expects the bulk of the storm to hit the region Sunday night into Monday, but there will continue to be rain for the next few days, with less heavy rain Tuesday and showers Wednesday.

“It will affect millions and cost billions,” he said. “In a lot of ways, it’s unprecedented, with the storm and what it’s doing. A lot of studies will be done with this.”

In a conference call Saturday, federal officials warned that the storm’s effects will be widespread, though it’s difficult to say which inland areas might be hit the hardest.

“You always start with the coastal areas, and that tends to be where a lot of the focus is nationally. We need to make sure that people understand it’s going to go well inland,” said Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It’s too early to say which areas and which states will suffer. This is not a coastal threat alone. This is a very large area.”

Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, said Sandy’s intensity is not expected to change dramatically between now and the time when it comes ashore. Once on land, the system is expected to slow down, resulting in long periods of damaging wind and heavy rain. A cold front also brings the possibility of snow in states such as West Virginia, where officials are warning of a snowfall of more than 2 feet.

South Jersey went through intense preparations in August 2011 for Tropical Storm Irene, which resulted in far less damage than expected. Knabb, however, warned against residents using past storms as a predictor of Sandy’s potential path.

“Every storm is different. If you were impacted or not impacted by a past storm, that doesn’t mean it will be exactly the same for you this time,” Knabb said. “In our 11 a.m. advisory Sunday, we introduced the potential for coastal flooding due to the combination of storm surge and tide (from) 4 to 8 feet above ground level in areas from Ocean City, Md., up to the Connecticut-Rhode Island border. Exactly who gets the worst of that surge ... will depend on exactly where the center (of the storm) goes.”

Cumberland County issued a state of emergency Saturday and strongly encouraged residents in bay and easily flooded areas to evacuate.

Freeholder Director Bill Whelan warned residents that if they do not evacuate, emergency crews may be unable to attend to them during the storm.

“People need to understand if they receive a warning or strong recommendation to move out of an area they need to heed those warnings,” he said. “If they call and it’s a matter of life or death, we simply cannot get there.”

The Oyster Creek Generating Station in Lacey Township issued a statement Saturday saying it was well prepared for Sandy. The reactor was shut down for a refueling outage, and a response team will monitor the situation and make any changes if necessary.

The plant is a “robust and fortified facility, capable of withstanding the most severe weather,” the release states.

Other precautions were being made Saturday as billboards were removed from local roadways such as the Atlantic City Expressway. But political signs remain on the roads in the area.

Some are saying they aren’t doing anything to prepare, while others are purchasing the bare minimum, citing last year’s storm.

“We just bought some water and food,” Atlantic City resident Carolyn Tang said.

Tang was making her way into the crowded parking lot at the Pleasantville Kmart on Saturday afternoon.

She was unaware of the order to evacuate the barrier island, and compared the situation to Irene when “it was nothing.”

In Brigantine, residents made last-minute preparations Saturday.

Bob Whedbee, project manager for Balcerski Building Co. in Linwood, is in the middle of building a house along the bay. With the impending storm, they halted work and boarded up the garage and any other openings.

The trash bin was full and could not be emptied until next week, so Whedbee used a bulldozer to dig a hole to bury trash into the ground.

Staff Writers Lee Procida, Jennifer Bogdan and Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this report.

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