WASHINGTON (AFP) - A deadly blizzard with bone-chilling winds and potentially record-breaking snowfall slammed the eastern United States on Saturday (Jan 23), killing at least eight, as officials urged millions in the storm's path to seek shelter, warning the worst is yet to come.
US news reports said at least eight people had died by late on Friday from causes related to the monster snowstorm, which is expected to last until early Sunday.
Forecasters predict the storm could dump more than 61cm of snow in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area by late Saturday, bringing life to a wintry halt as residents ride out the rough weather.
"The real teeth of this #winterstorm will be after midnight thru early Sat afternoon. Heavy snow, increasing winds, lightning threat," the National Weather Service (NWS) tweeted.
A blizzard warning was in effect for a large swath of the eastern United States from Washington up to New York.
The storm is expected to affect about 85 million Americans - about one quarter of the inhabitants of the United States. Before it's all over, it could cause more than US$1 billion (S$1.44 billion) in damage, NWS officials said.
Several southern states, meanwhile, were already hit by snow and sleet - unusual for the region - with tens of thousands without power.
Frantic shoppers emptied grocery store shelves in preparation for the storm, dubbed "Snowzilla" by some US media, and schools and government offices in Washington were all closed.
"I think it's going to be a disaster," Ms Sharonda Brown, a nurse, said as she waited for an Uber car with a full cart of groceries at a Washington supermarket stormed by shoppers.
Winds were expected to pick up overnight, prompting Washington's police chief Cathy Lanier to urge residents to stay indoors.
"With the increasing winds and increasing snow accumulation, now we're going to see more and more people stranded," she told CNN.
Crews were out clearing the roads throughout the US capital, while others turned to shovels.
Among them was 28-year-old Mr William Duren, who was clearing a sidewalk outside a downtown Washington hotel.
"Usually when we see snow in the forecast, it turns out to be only an inch or so. They always exaggerate on TV," he said, before adding that this time, the forecasters appeared to be right.
"It's a doozy," Mr Duren said.
Several thousand flights were canceled because of the storm, while officials in Washington took the unusual step of closing down the city's rail and bus system from Friday night until Monday morning.
The Metrorail - the second busiest underground train network in the United States after New York - serves about 700,000 customers a day in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
If the blizzard leaves as much snow in Washington as forecast, it could surpass a record set in 1922 by a storm that dumped 28 inches over three days and killed 100 people after a roof collapsed at a theater.
US Capitol Police have said they were lifting a decades-old sledding ban, but the national monuments, Capitol building and Smithsonian museums were all closed.
Even a massive snowball fight in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood, which nearly two thousand people said they would attend on Facebook, had to be postponed from Saturday to Sunday due to the storm's ferocity.
Snow and sleet has already hit the southern states of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, with 18 states under blizzard or other winter storm warnings, the Weather Channel reported.
"We're having a lot of accidents," said Mr Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, where two of the fatalities were reported to have occurred.
Nearly 95,000 people were without power in the state, emergency officials said on Twitter.
CNN reported that nearly 133,000 were without power across the Southeast.
Further north in New York, the storm is expected to dump up to a foot of snow from early Saturday to midday Sunday, the NWS reported.
"Unless urgent, stay off the roads," Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference.
The frigid weather marks a stark departure from what has otherwise been a mild winter along the eastern seaboard.
On Christmas Eve, the NWS reported that temperatures in New York's Central Park peaked at 22 deg C, the warmest ever for the day since records began in 1871.