WASHINGTON — A powerful storm barreled toward Washington, D.C., and much of the East Coast on Friday, threatening to bury the region under as much to 30 inches (76 cm) of snow after blasting Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky with a wintry mix.
The National Weather Service said the storm had the potential to cripple a broad swath of the Northeast, with about 2 feet (61 cm) of snow due to hit the Baltimore and Washington metro areas starting on Friday afternoon. Western suburbs could get even more snow.
“I want to be very clear with everybody. This is a major storm,” Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser said as the nation’s capital braced for what could turn out to be one of the worst storms in its history.
“This has life-and-death implications and all the residents of the District of Columbia should treat it that way.”
Given the extraordinary conditions expected, Washington has been preparing all week for the type of blizzard that Bowser said the Washington has not seen in 90 years.
AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski said the storm taking aim at Washington could bring one of the biggest snowfalls on record, eclipsing the “Snowmageddon” storm of 2010 that dropped 17.8 inches (45.2 cm).
The largest snowstorm recorded in Washington was the 1922 Knickerbocker storm, which buried the city under 28 inches (71 cm).
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Weather forecasters were looking for storm to hit the capital between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Friday and last until late on Saturday, bringing up to 2 to 2.5 feet (61 to 76 cm) over 36 hours and winds of 30 to 50 mph (48 to 80 kph), the mayor said.
“It will be wet, heavy snow,” she said.
Farther north, a blizzard watch was issued for New York City and parts of its Long Island and New Jersey suburbs starting early Saturday. Snow accumulation could reach 12 inches (30 cm) in the region, forecasters said. Southeastern Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, was expecting 10 to 16 inches (25 to 42 cm) of snow.
Governors of Arkansas and Tennessee ordered state offices closed on Friday as the storm pushed across their states and Kentucky. It dropped 5 inches (13 cm) of snow in Arkansas and a wintry mess of snow, sleet and freezing rain in parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, Petersen said.
“It’s expanding and coming east,” he said. “It will continue to grow as it crosses the mid-Atlantic states, where Maryland, southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Virginia will get the heaviest snow.”
Across the Southeast, government offices, schools and universities were shuttered on Friday.
Millions of residents in the storm’s path scrambled to prepare, picking stores clean of bottled water, food and other supplies.
Federal employees in the Washington area were told their offices would close at noon on Friday to allow them to get home safely before the snow begins piling up in the afternoon. Public schools were canceled.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which includes the second-busiest U.S. subway system, took the rare step of suspending operations from late on Friday through Sunday.
District of Columbia officials, who expected to be dealing with the storm’s aftermath for a week, said everyone except emergency workers should stay off the streets.
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Marisa Kritikson, 27, nursing student at George Washington University in Washington, feared she might be unable to get out of her basement apartment.
“I think it’s going to be a nightmare, the rates of snow we’re talking about,” she said. “I think we’re going to be incapacitated through next week.”
The Virginia National Guard planned to bring in up to 300 troops to assist in response operations.
Airlines have canceled more than 5,000 flights for Friday and Saturday, most of them at airports in North Carolina and Washington, according to FlightAware.com. Philadelphia’s airport said it would cancel all flights scheduled for Saturday.
Residents along New Jersey’s coastline were preparing for potential flooding during high tides on Saturday and Sunday. In the beach community of Ocean City, emergency management officials warned of forecasts calling for the highest flood levels since Superstorm Sandy brought heavy damage in 2012.
High winds and a full moon could combine to create a tide of nearly 8 feet (2.4 meters) in Atlantic City, officials said, still shy of the 10 feet (3 meters) that Sandy caused in Ocean City.
(Additional reporting by Scott Malone in Boston, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Barbara Goldberg in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Bill Trott)