NEW YORK/BOSTON — The first major winter storm of 2014 hit the northeastern United States on Thursday with heavy snow, dangerously low temperatures and strong winds that snarled travel just as many people were returning from holiday breaks.
The wide storm system stretches from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic coast, with parts of New England including Boston bracing for as much as 14 inches (36 cm) of snow by Friday morning. Some cities along the storm's southern edge expect only minimal snowfall.
Thousands of flights were delayed or canceled, with Boston's Logan International Airport warning it expected takeoffs to end at about 8:30 p.m. (0130 GMT) and officials at New York area airports setting up cots for potential stranded travelers.
The snowfall was expected to intensify after sunset, with the heaviest accumulation coming overnight.
“The real action is going to get cranked up this evening and during the overnight hours. We'll have heavy snow, windy conditions, reduced visibilities,” said Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Forecast snowfall varied widely, with Washington expected to see under an inch (2 cm), Philadelphia and New York 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm), Hartford 6 to 10 inches (15-25 cm) and Boston 8 to 14 inches (20-36 cm).
Officials across the region urged residents to stay off roadways and planned to close some major highways in New York State beginning at midnight ET (0500 GMT).
“Tomorrow people should definitely consider staying in their homes if the storm continues as we expect,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. “This is nothing to be trifled with. We have learned too well over the past few years the power of Mother Nature. We have seen the damage that has been done.”
Coastal flooding was forecast along low-lying parts of New England, with the risk greatest at high tide, near midnight.
The storm posed the first major challenge to the administration of New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio. Problems from digging out from snowstorms have been political havoc for mayors in the United States' biggest city for decades.
“We have to get it right. There is no question,” de Blasio told reporters. “Before I even think of politics or anything else, this is our job.”
The powerful storm forced about 1,807 U.S. flights to be canceled and about 4,536 delayed, with the worst-affected airports Chicago's O'Hare International and Newark's Liberty International Airport, according to FlightAware, a website which tracks air travel.
New York's three major airports were preparing to accommodate stranded travelers whose flights were canceled.
“We have a few hundred cots at each of the airports should you decide to become an overnight guest,” said Thomas Bosco, an official with the Port Authority of New York and Jersey, at New York's LaGuardia Airport. The authority also runs Newark and John F. Kennedy International Airport.
One traveler worrying that his Friday flight out of Logan could be delayed or canceled was Ruben Raskin, 23, of San Jose, California, who was in the area visiting his girlfriend.
“It kind of reminds me why I moved to San Jose after going to college out here,” Raskin said.
Conditions in Boston were bad enough by afternoon that the “Frozen Fenway” winter carnival, featuring sledding and college ice-hockey at the baseball stadium where the Red Sox play, was canceled for Thursday and Friday.
‘Dangerous’ cold expected
The weather service said the mass of Arctic air would drop temperatures to levels 20 to 30 degrees below normal, with record lows possible on Friday.
“Temperatures are expected to plummet tonight and tomorrow with wind chills dropping as low as 25 degrees below zero [F/-32 C],” said Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. “That is a very dangerous set of circumstances.”
The low temperature in the contiguous United States on Wednesday was -47 Fahrenheit (-43 Celsius), reached in Van Buren, Maine, and tied in Babbitt and Embarrass, Minnesota, the weather service said.
Patrick told non-essential state workers to head home at 3 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) as did his counterparts in neighboring Connecticut. Both encouraged private-sector employers to consider releasing their staff early.
Slippery road conditions made driving a hazard in many storm-hit areas.
In Cleveland, Ohio, Chris Behm spent an hour trying to reach the vocational training center for developmentally disabled people where he works before calling the commute off and urging his 19 employees to stay home.
“It was terrible on all of the roads and there is more weather on its way,” Behm said. “It just wasn't worth it to open and possibly kill someone.”
Officials in Boston and Providence said schools would be closed on Friday, and in other districts throughout the region, parents were bracing for the possibility their children would be home on Friday.
“It's tough with these storms because I end up using days off that I don't want to take,” said Kristen Carson, who had taken the train into Manhattan from her home in suburban Montclair, New Jersey. “After the holiday, it's really kind of a pinch.”