WASHINGTON A powerful storm barreled toward Washington, D.C., on Friday, threatening to bury parts of the East Coast under as much as 30 inches (76 cm) of snow after coating North Carolina in white and blasting Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky with a wintry mix.
The National Weather Service said the storm had the potential to cripple a broad swath of the Northeast, with about 2 feet (61 cm) of snow due to hit the Baltimore and Washington metro areas starting on Friday afternoon. Western suburbs could get even more snow while the New York area was expected to 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.
Given the extraordinary conditions expected, Washington has been preparing all week for the type of blizzard that Bowser said the city has not seen in 90 years.
AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said the storm could bring Washington one of its biggest snowfalls on record, eclipsing the "Snowmageddon" storm of 2010 that dropped 17.8 inches (45.2 cm).
The largest snowstorm recorded in Washington was the 1922 Knickerbocker storm, which inundated the city under 28 inches (71 cm).
"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.
Weather forecasters were looking for storm to hit the capital between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Friday and last until late on Saturday, bringing up to 2 to 2.5 feet (61 to 76 cm) over 36 hours and winds of 30 to 50 mph (48 to 80 kph), the mayor said.
Farther north, a blizzard watch was issued for New York City and parts of its Long Island and New Jersey suburbs starting early Saturday. Snow accumulation could reach 12 inches (30 cm) in the region, forecasters said. Southeastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, was expecting 10 to 16 inches (25 to 42 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, Petersen said.
"It's expanding and coming east," he 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."
The Virginia National Guard planned to bring in up to 300 troops for help.
Across the Southeast, government offices, schools and universities were shuttered on Friday.
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.
State and city officials in North Carolina warned more snow and ice accumulation was expected into Saturday with some areas getting a foot of snow.
The governor’s office reported four fatalities in weather-related car crashes since Wednesday, including a death Friday morning that caused traffic backups on I-95 in Johnston County.
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 U.S. subway system, took the rare step of suspending operations from late Friday through Sunday.
Airlines canceled more than 5,000 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 meters) in Atlantic City, officials said, still shy of the 10 feet (3 meters) that Sandy caused in Ocean City.
(Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Bill Trott)
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