WASHINGTON — The eastern United States was in a panic on Thursday ahead of what forecasters called a "potentially paralysing" blizzard, sparking flight cancelations and the looming shutdown 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 and blinding squalls, weather experts said.
With authorities warning the storm could bury Washington under more snow than it has seen in nearly a century, officials announced they would take the unusual step of closing 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.
It is likely the longest closing in the system's 40-plus year history, The Washington Post reported.
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.
"Travel is expected to be severely limited if not impossible during the height of the storm 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," he told reporters.
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 spokeswoman said, adding that service would likely resume on Sunday and be reduced on Friday.
United Airlines announced it would be suspending flights at Washington's Dulles and other Mid-Atlantic airports starting on Friday afternoon.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a state of emergency and 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," she said.
States of emergency were also declared in neighbouring Virginia and Maryland.
'Warm and toasty'
The US capital was already struggling after Wednesday snow flurries 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 to the White House – normally a trip of 20-25 minutes.
"We should have been out earlier with more resources," Bowser admitted.
Asked how 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 dumps 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 theatre.
Since Wednesday residents have been flocking to supermarkets to stock up on food and snow shovels. — AFP