Conditions quickly became treacherous as the first heavy flakes fell from Tennessee through Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains, aiming straight for Washington. Cars got stuck on icy, snow-covered roads, and people lost power as far south as Georgia.
The worst of the blizzards will be in the Washington area. The National Weather Service said this could be one of the top three storms in the capital’s history.
Snowfall as heavy as 1in to 3in an hour could last for 24 hours or more in some areas, said meteorologist Paul Kocin with the National Weather Service. That puts estimates at more than 2ft for Washington, up to 18in for Philadelphia, and 10in or more in New York City. Even in Atlanta, people headed home early to avoid snow.
All the ingredients have come together to create a blizzard with brutally high winds, dangerous inland flooding, white-out conditions, and even the possibility of thunder snow, with Washington squarely in the bullseye, forecasters said.
The winds initially picked up warm water from the Gulf of Mexico, then gained more moisture from the warmer-than-usual Gulf Stream.
Kocin said it recalls “Snowmageddon,” the first of two storms that “wiped out” Washington in 2010 and dumped up to 30in of snow in places. This storm could have similar snowfall, but the weekend timing and days of warning could help limit deaths and damage.
As food and supplies vanished from store shelves, five states and the District of Columbia declared states of emergency ahead of the slow-moving system.
Schools and government offices closed pre-emptively. Thousands of flights were cancelled. College basketball games and concerts were postponed. The snowfall could easily cause more than $1bn (€925m) in damage and paralyse the Eastern third of the nation, weather service director Louis Uccellini said.
“It does have the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm that can affect more than 50m people,” said Uccellini at the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
A White House spokesman aid President Barack Obama would hunker down at the White House.