BOSTON The Northeastern United States braced on Friday morning for a possibly record-setting blizzard bearing down on the region, which forecasters warned could drop up to 2-1/2 feet (76 cm) of snow and bring travel to a halt.
Blizzard warnings were in effect from New Jersey through southern Maine, with Boston expected to bear the heaviest blow from the massive storm. The day was expected to begin with light snow, with winds picking up and snow getting much heavier by afternoon.
Officials urged residents to stay home, rather than risk getting stuck in deep drifts or whiteout conditions.
Boston and many surrounding communities said their schools would be closed on Friday, and city and state officials told nonessential city workers to stay home and urged businesses to allow workers to work from home or on shortened schedules.
"Accumulation is expected to be swift, heavy and dangerous," Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told reporters. "I am ordering all non-essential state workers to work from home tomorrow. I am strongly urging private employers to take the same precautions."
Officials across the region echoed his recommendations, urging residents to prepare for possible power outages and consider checking on elderly or disabled neighbours who might need help.
New York City officials said they had 1,800 Sanitation Department trucks ready to respond to the storm.
The National Weather Service said Boston could get 18 to 24 inches or more of snow (45 to 60 cm) on Friday and Saturday, its first heavy snowfall in two years. Winds could gust as high as 60 to 75 miles per hour (95 to 120 km per hour) as the day progresses.
If more than 18.2 inches (46.2 cm) of snow falls in Boston, it will rank among the city's 10 largest snowfalls. Boston's record snowfall, 27.6 inches (70.1 cm), came in 2003.
Cities from Hartford, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine, expected to see at least a foot of snow.
More than 2,200 flights had already been cancelled by airlines for Friday, according to the website FlightAware.com, with the largest number of cancellations at airports in Newark, New York, Chicago and Boston.
Nearly 500 flights were cancelled for Saturday, according to the flight-tracking site.
Boston's Logan International Airport warned that once the storm kicked up, all flights would likely be grounded for 24 hours.
United Continental Holdings Inc, JetBlue Airways Corp and Delta Air Lines Inc all reported extensive cancellations.
ECHOES OF '78
For some in the Boston area, the forecast brought to mind memories of the blizzard of 1978, which dropped 27.1 inches (68.8 cm), the second-largest snowfall recorded in the city's history. That storm started out gently and intensified during the day, leaving many motorists stranded during their evening commutes.
Dozens of deaths were reported in the region after that storm, many as a result of people touching downed electric lines.
Officials warned that a combination of heavy snow and high winds made for a high risk of extensive power outages across the region. That posed the risk of some residents losing heat at a time when temperatures would dip to 20 Fahrenheit (minus 7 Celsius).
Shelves at many stores were picked clean of food and storm-related supplies such as shovels and salt as area residents scrambled to prepare.
Some big employers said they were considering officials' pleas to allow their workers to stay home.
State Street Corp, one of Boston's largest employers in the financial sector, was considering allowing employees to work from home on Friday, said spokeswoman Anne McNally.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Lovering and Tim McLaughlin in Boston, Karen Jacobs in Atlanta and Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina; Editing by Andrew Hay and Lisa Shumaker)