US markets close as Frankenstein's Monstorm heads to NYC

Hurricane Sandy marks first full trading-day lost to weather in over 25 years.

Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to hit in New York City in just under 15 hours, is likely to throw everything we expected about the upcoming week off-course.

For readers of this blog, the biggest immediate effect is that all equity trading is cancelled for today, and likely for tomorrow as well. The shutdown, announced by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), follows the NYSE's decision, announced yesterday, to close floor trading for the storm.

The NYSE had hoped to leave digital markets open, but the SEC's decision trumps that and also brings down a further dozen exchanges, including the other major NYC exchange, NASDAQ, but also ones based further afield, all the way to BATS in Kansas.

While the NYSE decision was based largely on the physical safety of traders on the floor, the SEC's mandate seems more built around a desire for fairness and stability. Given the storm will likely shut down most of the east coast for at least part of today, large numbers of traders would be unable to log-on wherever they are. The COO of NYSE confirmed to Bloomberg that:

Operating the market that way didn’t seem to serve the public interest. Why do this? To prove we can? That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”

The last time the NYSE closed for a full day due to weather was because of Hurricane Gloria in 1985, which says a lot about how bad Sandy is expected to be.

The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal has written about Why Sandy Has Meteorologists Scared in 4 Images (including one animated GIF, obviously); this is Frankenstein's Monstorm, with a massive confluence of adverse factors. Firstly, and most importantly, it's really, really big. The winds are faster, the affected area is larger, and it will likely stick around for a lot longer once it makes landfall.

Beyond that, though, there's the fact that the eye of the storm will be on central New Jersey, meaning that New York City – the most densely populated area in the US – will be getting full-strength hurricane winds; the fact that the same cold winds that will cause it to "pinwheel" on to land will also strengthen it just before it does, hitting coastal areas even harder; and the problem that the "sheltered" New York City coastline will instead funnel the storm surge directly towards populated areas, meaning that for the coast between Queens and the Bronx especially, there is more chance than not that the surge will be greater than six feet.

The effect of the storm is expected to be worse than last summer's Hurricane Irene, which, despite being thought of as a damp squib (pun not intended), still caused nearly $16bn of damage, mostly from flooding. But the comparatively underwhelming nature of Irene has meant that a number of people aren't taking Sandy as seriously as they perhaps ought to, with evacuations (Mayor Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of around 375,000 people in the worst-hit parts of the city) reportedly being largely ignored.

As well as the physical and economic damage of the storm, there is one other big effect that Sandy could have: it may mess up the US presidential election. No matter how well-run the response is, there are likely to be some areas still lacking power by the 6th. Contingency plans will be in effect, but if there is any uniformity to the areas affect – if, say, rural counties are more likely to be cut-off than urban – then there is the chance that some swings could be down to the storm.

The chance of it affecting the outcome is slim but the possibility is there. Who knows how the parties, and the public, would take it?

Hurricane Sandy making landfall. Image: WeatherBELL

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.