WASHINGTON (AFP) - The eastern United States was in panic mode on Thursday (Jan 21) ahead of what forecasters called a “potentially paralysing” blizzard, sparking the cancellation of hundreds of flights and the looming closure of Washington’s public transportation system.
The US capital and the surrounding area could see up to 61cm of snow accumulate in a short time from Friday to Saturday, coupled with fierce winds, forecasters said.
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 shutting 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.
The Washington Post reported that officials believed this was to be the longest closing in the system’s more than 40-year history.
Heavy snow was expected across at least 15 states, with icy rain and coastal flooding in other areas, according to the Weather Channel.
The National Weather Service (NWS) issued a blizzard warning for Washington, and said New York could catch the tail end of the storm as the weekend progresses.
“Heavy snow and blowing snow will cause dangerous conditions and will be a threat to life and property,” the NWS warned in its Washington bulletin. “Travel is expected to be severely limited if not impossible during the height of the storm on Friday night and Saturday.”
NWS director Louis Uccellini said the system had “the potential of being an extremely dangerous storm that could affect over 50 million people”.
“We are talking about a potentially paralysing storm that is already setting up,” Mr Uccellini told reporters in a conference call.
Ahead of the first snowflakes, American Airlines said it was cancelling hundreds of flights, including at Washington’s two airports on Saturday. All flights on that day will also be scrapped in Baltimore and Philadelphia, a spokesman said, adding that service would likely resume on Sunday.
All American Eagle operations will be halted on Saturday at New York’s three airports, according to the airline.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a state of emergency which will allow for access to “federal resources when we need them”, she said during a press conference, in which she also called off school on Friday.
“I’ve lived in DC most of my life and I don’t know if I’ve lived through a forecast like this. It’s an extremely large storm. It will last for 36 hours.” States of emergency were also declared in Virginia and Maryland.
The US capital was already struggling after evening flurries on Wednesday left traffic at a standstill, even snaring President Barack Obama’s motorcade, which spent more than an hour navigating the icy streets from Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland to the White House – normally a trip of 20-25 minutes.
“We should have been out earlier with more resources,” Ms Bowser admitted.
Asked how Mr Obama planned to weather the big storm, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Thursday: “My guess is he will stay warm and toasty inside the White House.”
If the blizzard creates as much snow in Washington over the weekend as predicted, it could surpass a record set in 1922 by a storm that dumped more than half a metre of snow over three days and killed 100 people after a roof collapsed at a theatre.
Residents were already flocking to supermarkets to stock up on food and snow shovels on Thursday, making for long lines at checkouts.
The NWS reported that there was “uncertainty” in snowfall through early Saturday in the corridor stretching from New York City to Boston, which saw massive amounts of snowfall last winter.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, told reporters that his city was preparing for up to 31cm of snow, as he issued a hazardous travel advisory for the weekend.
“We’re bracing for the first big storm of the winter. I want to let my fellow New Yorkers know we’re prepared, the agencies here are ready for what’s coming up ahead,” Mr de Blasio said.
He said more than 575 salt spreaders would be pre-deployed on Friday evening and that the city had 303,000 tonnes of rock salt on hand.
Washington had more than 200 plows and 39 tonnes of salt at the ready, Mr Bowser said.
South of Washington, “significant icing is likely for portions of Kentucky and North Carolina”, NWS said.
Mr Uccellini said there was even “the potential for a severe weather outbreak today from East Texas to the western part of Florida”.
But despite the dire forecast, some were excited about the snow, with parents in Washington’s Logan Circle neighbourhood trading tips on where to take children sledding once the blizzard died down.
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 iconic Central Park peaked at 22 deg C, the warmest ever for the day since records began in 1871.