A powerful storm barrelled towards Washington DC on Friday, threatening to bury parts of the Middle Atlantic region under as much as 30 inches (76 cm) of snow and bring the nation’s capital to a virtual standstill.
After delivering a wintry mix in Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, the storm is expected to arrive in the Baltimore and Washington metro areas on Friday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. Before ending sometime on Saturday, it could leave about 2 feet (61 cm) of snow.
Western suburbs of the US capital could get nearly 3 feet (1 metre) of snow while the Philadelphia and New York areas may get a little less.
“I want to be very clear with everybody. This is a major storm,” Washington mayor Muriel Bowser said as the nation’s capital braced for what could turn out to be one of the worst storms in its history.
“This has life-and-death implications and all the residents of the District of Columbia should treat it that way.”
The Weather Channel said more than 85 million people in at least 20 states were covered by either a blizzard warning, winter storm watch, winter storm warning, winter weather advisory, or freezing rain advisory.
Bowser said the storm could bring 2 to 2.5 feet (61 to 76cm) over 36 hours and winds of 30 to 50mph (48 to 80kph).
Given the extraordinary conditions expected, Washington has been preparing all week for the type of blizzard that she said the city has not seen in 90 years.
AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said Washington’s snowfall could eclipse the “Snowmageddon” storm of 2010 that dropped 17.8 inches (45.2 cm). If forecasts prove accurate, the storm could rival the 1922 Knickerbocker storm, which dumped a record 28 inches (71 cm) on the city.
“I think it’s going to be a nightmare, the rates of snow we’re talking about,” said Marisa Kritikson, 27, a nursing student at George Washington University in Washington.
The snow began in Washington at about 1 pm and NWS meteorologist Daniel Petersen said it could last 24 hours. It was due to hit New York late on Friday and last 18 to 24 hours.
Snow accumulation could reach 12 inches (30 cm) in the New York region, with winds gusting to 50 miles per hour (80 kph), forecasters said. Southeastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, was expecting 10 to 18 inches (25 to 45 cm) of snow.
Governors of Arkansas and Tennessee ordered state offices closed on Friday as the storm pushed across their states and Kentucky. It dropped 5 inches (13 cm) of snow in Arkansas and a wintry mess of snow, sleet and freezing rain in parts of Tennessee and Kentucky.
“It’s expanding and coming east,” Petersen said. “It will continue to grow as it crosses the mid-Atlantic states, where Maryland, Southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia will get the heaviest snow.”
In Virginia, where the National Guard planned to bring in up to 300 troops.
In addition to several inches of snow, the Charlotte, North Carolina, area could get up to a half inch of ice, causing concerns about power outages and dangerous driving conditions, officials said. Other parts of the state could get a foot.
By early afternoon, there were more than 25,000 power outages across the Carolinas, a Duke Energy Corp spokesperson said
In Atlanta, officials urged a staggered approach to getting commuters out of the city ahead of the storm. Mayor Kasim Reed said the city had learnt from an ice storm in January 2014, when an exodus of commuters resulted in gridlock and left thousands of students stranded overnight at their schools.
In the Washington area, home to about 6 million people, residents scrambled to prepare, picking stores clean of bottled water, food and other supplies.
“I have nine cases of wine, half and half and coffee, firewood and all my devices are charged. All I need now is a wing and a prayer,” said Liz Scherer, 54, who works out of her home in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland.
Federal employees in the Washington area were told their offices would close at noon on Friday to allow them to get home before the snow began piling up. City officials said everyone except emergency workers should stay off the streets.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which includes the second-busiest US subway system, took the rare step of suspending operations from late Friday through Sunday.
Airlines cancelled nearly 6,000 flights for Friday and Saturday, most of them at airports in North Carolina and Washington, according to FlightAware.com. Philadelphia’s airport said it would cancel all flights scheduled for Saturday.
But the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said it had no plans to shut its airports.
Residents along New Jersey’s coastline were preparing for potential flooding during high tides on Saturday and Sunday. In the beach community of Ocean City, emergency management officials warned of forecasts calling for the highest flood levels since Superstorm Sandy brought heavy damage in 2012.
High winds and a full moon could combine to create a tide of nearly 8 feet (2.4 metres) in Atlantic City, officials said, still shy of the 10 feet (3 metres) that Sandy caused in Ocean City.