A monster blizzard threatening the US East Coast slammed into Washington on Friday, quickly blanketing the nation’s capital in snow as officials urged millions in the storm’s path to seek shelter.
Forecasters predict the storm will dump two feet (61 centimeters) of snow in Washington and the surrounding area by late Saturday, bringing life to a wintry halt as residents ride out the rough weather.
A blizzard warning was in effect for a large swath of the eastern United States from Washington up to New York, the National Weather Service (NWS) said. Several southern states were already hit by snow and sleet.
“I want to be very clear with everybody. We see this as a major storm. It has life and death implications,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser warned.
Thousands of flights were scrapped and grocery store shelves emptied in preparation for the storm, which was dubbed “Snowzilla” by The Washington Post’s weather team.
Schools and government offices in Washington were all closed, with public transportation scheduled to shut down in the evening until early Monday.
“Visibility will be reduced to near zero at times in whiteout conditions,” NWS reported in its bulletin for Washington.
“Heavy snow and blowing snow will cause dangerous conditions and will be a threat to life and property. Travel is expected to be severely limited if not impossible during the height of the storm.”
The Post reported in the late afternoon that snow accumulation was “quickly passing the two-inch mark in the immediate metro area.”
It warned that extreme snowfall rates of two to three inches per hour were possible at the storm’s peak later Friday and into Saturday.
“Conditions are deteriorating quickly,” warned Chris Geldart, director of Washington’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
NWS director Louis Uccellini said Thursday the system had the potential to “affect over 50 million people.”
‘Going to be a disaster’
So far, more than 6,600 flights originally scheduled for Friday and Saturday within, into or out of the United States have been canceled, according to the flight monitor flightaware.com.
With authorities warning the storm could bury Washington under more snow than it has seen in nearly a century, officials took the unusual step of closing down the city’s rail and bus system from Friday night until Monday morning.
The Metro system -- the second busiest in the United States after New York -- serves about 700,000 customers a day in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
Grocery store shelves were bare -- with toilet paper, milk, bread and alcohol conspicuously missing -- as residents anticipated impassable roads and power outages.
“I think it’s going to be a disaster,” Sharonda Brown, a nurse, said as she waited for an Uber car with a full cart of groceries at a Washington supermarket.
A recreational center across the street, meanwhile, was readying to take in some of the city’s homeless.
If the blizzard leaves as much snow in Washington as forecast, it could surpass a record set in 1922 by a storm that dumped 28 inches over three days and killed 100 people after a roof collapsed at a theater.
US Capitol Police have said they were lifting a decades-old sledding ban, but the national monuments, US Capitol building and Smithsonian museums were all closed.
Even a massive snowball fight in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, which nearly two thousand people said they would attend on Facebook, had to be postponed from Saturday to Sunday due to the storm’s ferocity.
‘Lots of accidents’
Snow and sleet has already hit the southern states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, with 18 states under blizzard or other winter storm warnings, the Weather Channel reported.
“People are staying home and that is extremely important for our citizens. We’re having a lot of accidents,” North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory told CNN.
Nearly 68,000 people were without power in the state, emergency officials said on Twitter.
Meanwhile, footage showed cars slipping and sliding in the southern city of Nashville, as middle Tennessee faced its biggest snowstorm in 13 years, The Tennessean reported.
Further north, in New York, the storm is expected to dump up to a foot of snow from early Saturday to midday Sunday, NWS reported.
“Any unnecessary driving should be avoided. Unless urgent, stay off the roads,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference. “Do not bring out your vehicle tomorrow and any vehicle blocking a roadway tomorrow will be towed.”
The city will enforce a local winter weather emergency and is braced for potential flooding in coastal areas, he said.
The frigid weather marks a stark departure from what has otherwise been a mild winter along the eastern seaboard.
Just a month ago on Christmas Eve, the NWS reported that temperatures in New York’s Central Park peaked at 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 Celsius), the warmest ever for the day since records began in 1871.