(Reuters) – Washington D.C., New York and other East Coast cities readied fleets of snow plows, thousands of flights were canceled or delayed and residents stocked up on groceries on Thursday ahead of a winter storm expected to dump up to 30 inches of snow on the region.
At least five states had declared emergencies by Thursday afternoon, as the season’s first major Atlantic Coast storm started to move over the Mid-South before barreling on an expected north and eastward course bringing up to two feet of snow to some areas.
Blizzard warnings were out in the nation’s capital and Baltimore, with extreme conditions expected to begin on Friday afternoon, while New York City was under a blizzard watch for Saturday morning.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which includes the second-busiest U.S. subway system, said it would suspend operations from late on Friday through Sunday.
The Virginia National Guard said it planned to bring in up to 300 troops to assist in response operations.
Grocery store shelves were being stripped of bread, milk and other essentials as millions of residents in the storm‘s path prepared to hunker down for a wintry weekend. Consumer watchdogs warned against illegal price gouging for such essentials as generators, batteries, flashlights and hotel lodging.
Airlines began cancelling Friday and Saturday flights, with most of the 951 cancellations for Friday at Washington and North Carolina airports, according to FlightAware.com.
American Airlines (AAL) scrapped all Friday flights into North Carolina’s Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and Delta Air Lines (DAL) canceled about 120 flights in the Southeast region. American scrapped most Saturday flights into Washington, New York and Philadelphia area airports, and Delta was poised to cancel many of the same.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio urged motorists to stay off roads, starting on Friday.
“Anyone who has the illusion you’re going to be taking big trips over the weekend, get that out of your mind,” de Blasio said at a news conference.
Speaking at a news conference surrounded by dump trucks being loaded with salt, Bowser said the U.S. capital’s public schools would be shut on Friday and local government offices would close at noon.
Bowser apologized for not having the city ready for about 2 inches of snow that snarled Wednesday’s rush hour traffic, in what many Washington residents saw as a bad omen for the weekend.
Asked on Thursday how she thought Washington would cope with the blizzard, Patricia DeWolf, a 63-year-old retiree, said, “If last night was an indication, not very well.” She spoke outside a Safeway grocery store, where she had been loading up on supplies.
The National Weather Service put Washington and Baltimore under blizzard warnings from 3 p.m. Eastern Friday through Sunday morning.
It forecast up to 2 feet of snow in the capital, and as much as 30 inches in western suburbs, with winds gusting to 50 miles per hour.
“Visibility will be reduced to near zero in whiteout conditions,” it said.
In North Carolina, two women died late on Wednesday in car accidents on slippery roadways, the governor’s office said.
The U.S. government’s personnel office did not respond to a query about whether federal offices in the Washington area would close on Friday.
The storm was expected to deliver a slightly weaker wallop to the New York and Long Island areas with blizzard conditions from Saturday morning through Sunday.
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New York canceled its Winter Jam in Central Park, set for Saturday, even after the snow-starved city had spent days making artificial snow for the winter sports festival.
Governors in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania joined Bowser in declaring states of emergency, and the governor of West Virginia declared a state of preparedness.