The director of the National Weather Service said all the ingredients have come together to create blizzards with brutally high winds, dangerous inland flooding, white-out conditions and even the possibility of thunder snow, when lightning strikes through a snowstorm.
The snowfall, expected to continue from late Friday into Sunday, could easily cause more than $1 billion in damage and paralyze the Eastern third of the nation, weather service director Louis Uccellini sad.
“It does have the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm that can affect more than 50 million people,” Uccellini said at the service's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
“It’s only the second such time in recent history where this much snow in a single event has been forecast,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said during a news conference Thursday. “Today I’m declaring a state of emergency for Washington, D.C., which allows us the ability to access federal resources when we need them.”
The federal government announced its offices would be closing at noon Friday.
Bowser said schools would be closed all day on Friday, and that nonessential city staff were encouraged to be home by noon to avoid being stranded on the roads.
“We can expect significant winds throughout the storm event, which is anticipated to last for 36 hours,” Bowser told reporters.
Bowser came under fire over the city’s poor response to light snow that fell Wednesday evening, snarling traffic and causing residents major delays with their commute.
Hundreds of snowplows and dump trucks were standing by in the U.S. capital ahead of Friday’s expected storm. City officials were also coordinating with the National Guard and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should it need additional resources, Bowser said.
The capital's subway system announced earlier in the day that it will shut down entirely late Friday night and remain closed through Sunday for the sake of employee and rider safety. Underground stations usually stay open during major snowstorms.
Weather Prediction Center meteorologist Paul Kocin, who with Uccellini wrote a two-volume textbook on northeast snowstorms, estimated more than 2 feet for Washington, a foot to 18 inches for Philadelphia and eight inches to a foot in New York.
The snowfall could be as heavy as 1 to 3 inches per hour, and continue for 24 hours or more, Kocin said.
That could put this snowstorm near the top 10 to hit the East, with the weekend timing and days of warning helping to limit deaths and damage, said Kocin, who compared it to “Snowmageddon,” the first of two storms that “wiped out” Washington in 2010 and dumped up to 30 inches of snow in places.
Unfortunately, more than just snow is coming. Uccellini said it won't be quite as bad as Superstorm Sandy, but people should expect high winds, a storm surge and inland flooding from Delaware to New York.
On Thursday, New York City Emergency Management issued a hazardous travel advisory for Saturday and Sunday. It said the city was under blizzard watch over the weekend, as a system is forecast to bring heavy snow and “potentially damaging winds” that could create dangerous travel conditions.
Total snow accumulation was expected to be between 8-12 inches, the notice said.
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.
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 many of the more than 2,400 cancellations for Friday at Washington and North Carolina airports, according to FlightAware.com.
Meteorologists say high winds in the Washington, D.C. area could result in power outages. David Velazquez, executive vice president of Pepco, the city’s electric power company, said they have 550 field personnel ready to go and are coordinating with other utilities along the coast in case the storm knocks out power.
“If you see a downed wire, assume it’s energized and stay away and call us,” Velasquez told reporters at a news conference on Thursday.
As cities prepared for the storm, Bowser said among the most vulnerable to such weather events are the elderly, disabled, and homeless.
“We’re especially concerned about vulnerable residents, the elderly or disabled, who will need extra help,” Bowser said, asking people to notify authorities if they knew of anyone who needed assistance.
“Also, if you know or see someone who needs a shelter, or is homeless or on the street, call 311 for help as we will continue to experience cold temperatures,” Bowser said.
Community Care Network of Virginia, a homeless shelter near Washington, D.C., has 135 beds available for anyone looking for a place to stay during the storm, employee Gregory Irving told Al Jazeera.
Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the U.S. capital has an emergency shelter hotline for anyone who needs a warm place to be during the blizzard.
Hustings said there is city law that ensures enough shelter space for anyone who wants it when it’s freezing.
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be anyone outside,” Hustings said. “There are some folks who may refuse to go inside for a variety of reasons. But yes, if the temperature dips below 32 you can find space inside.”
“There also may be additional organizations informally on hand. Places like Miriam’s Kitchen that usually provide food and case management for the homeless, will be open continuously during these types of weather events,” Hustings said.
With wire services