Blizzard bearing down on eastern U.S. snarls airports, closes offices

At least 50 million people are in the path of a paralyzing winter storm that prompted the cancellation of thousands of flights, closed government offices, and threatens Washington, D.C., with one of its worst snowfalls on record. New York is bracing for a blizzard.

More than 2 feet of snow should start falling in Washington and Baltimore Friday before moving up the coast, according to the National Weather Service. New York will start to get snow Saturday and may see more than 6 inches along with heavy winds.

“There are blizzard warnings for the whole corridor from Washington to Philadelphia, New York and Long Island,” said Dan Petersen, a meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. “It is going to put us in the top couple of snowstorms down here. It’s a historic snow storm.”

The heaviest three-day snow to fall in the Washington area was 28 inches in January 1922, according to the weather service. Baltimore received 26.8 inches in February 2003. While the East Coast cities bear the brunt of some of the heaviest snow, the storm is a national event, with a tornado and severe thunderstorms across the South and an ice storm stretching from Kentucky into North Carolina.

Winter storm warnings and advisories stretch from Louisiana to Massachusetts and some 32,000 people are without power from Texas to Virginia. Petersen said snow was falling early Friday in Indiana and Illinois.

“It has the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm,” Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It is a potentially paralyzing storm.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged people to avoid traveling Saturday and Sunday. In Washington, federal offices will close at noon, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s website. Public schools are closed and Washington Metro will halt city buses at 5 p.m. and rail travel at 11 p.m. Both bus and subway services will remain shut through Sunday.

One major Washington event will go on as scheduled: The annual March for Life marking the Roe v. Wade anniversary will start at noon, the event’s organizers said in a release.

Almost 4,800 flights around the U.S. were canceled for Friday and Saturday as of 7:30 a.m., according to Houston-based FlightAware, an airline tracking service. Most were in the New York and Washington areas.

New York can expect 6 to 10 inches, said Steve LaVoie, a meteorologist at Hometown Forecast Services Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire. The high winds associated with the storm and periods of heavy snow triggered New York and Long Island blizzard warnings. Wind gusts of 50 miles per hour are possible in Manhattan and the rest of New York starting Saturday and into Sunday, the weather service said.

The line between heavy snow and not much at all will be a fine one in the New York area, so the area just north of the city will probably have amounts drop off sharply. At the same time, New Jersey could end up as much as 18 inches, the weather service said.

Boston will probably be spared any real problems from this storm. The city that saw a record snowfall last year may get 2 inches by Sunday, according to the weather service.

“In Boston, it is still not a big deal,” LaVoie said.

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