WASHINGTON - A crippling winter storm is gaining momentum and taking aim at the Eastern Seaboard this weekend, with the potential to drop more than two feet of snow on the nation's busiest corridor. Blizzard watches are in effect for every major city from Washington to New York. The storm surge could reach 5 feet on the Mid-Atlantic coast. Freezing rain is expected to coat parts of the Carolinas in thick, dangerous ice.
Authorities along the East Coast announced preparations for the storm, with officials vowing to be ready and issuing dire warnings urging people to avoid travel.
The Washington region is in the bulls-eye, targeted with at the very least 15 inches of snow and possibly up to 30. This is more snow than the region has seen since the crippling, exhausting winter of 2009-2010, when "Snowmageddon" dumped nearly 18 inches on the capital. That could pale in comparison to the snow that falls this weekend.
Washington's snowiest storm on record came in 1922, when 28 inches fell on Jan. 27-29 - the infamous Knickerbocker storm, named for the theater that collapsed under the weight of snow and killed 98 moviegoers.
While the inches accumulate, gusty winds will drive blowing snow and lead to white-out conditions. The National Weather Service has issued a blizzard warning for the entire D.C.-Baltimore region, noting that "conditions will be a threat to life and property." Wind gusts could reach 55 mph.
Power outages seem like a sure thing, though how many and how widespread are still in question. During Snowmageddon, hundreds of thousands of customers lost power, and in some cases it was out for days.
In the D.C.-Baltimore region, snow is expected to begin between noon and 5 p.m. Friday and continue until Sunday morning, with Saturday morning and afternoon being the height of the storm.
Along the coast, a different threat is taking shape. Wave heights near shore could reach 15 or 20 feet this weekend. Powerful onshore winds could lead to hurricane-like coastal flooding. Making matters worse, the prolonged nature of the storm means that winds will be blowing onshore for three high tides. And it's nearly a full moon.
Forecast models are predicting a storm surge of 4 to 5 feet in Delaware, and 3 to 4 feet in southern New Jersey.
Moderate to major flooding is possible in coastal and back bay areas of Delaware and New Jersey during high tides from Saturday morning through Sunday morning. The National Weather Service cautions that numerous roadways could be flooded and inaccessible, and that powerful waves may significantly erode the beaches.
North of the Mid-Atlantic, snow totals will be lower but winds will be no less punishing. Early Thursday morning, the Weather Service issued a blizzard watch for Philadelphia, all five boroughs of New York City and Long Island.
Snow accumulation is expected to be anywhere from 6 to 12 inches, but winds will be howling from the northwest, gusting to 55 mph. Visibility could drop below 1/4 mile at times between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon.
In New York, the storm begins Saturday morning and reaches maximum intensity Saturday night, with snow expected to taper off mid-afternoon Sunday. People in the area should expect "extremely dangerous travel due to heavy snowfall and strong winds," the Weather Service said Thursday.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to reassure residents that the city was prepared for a major storm, saying Thursday that thousands of sanitation workers would be deployed Friday and adding that more than 1,700 vehicles with plows ready to hit the streets.
"We're bracing for the first big storm of the winter," de Blasio said during a briefing with reporters, according to a transcript provided by his office. He added: "We've all been lulled asleep a bit by how a warm a winter it's been. It's astounding to me that we're almost to February 1st before we had our first real snowstorm."
He said it was too early to know if a travel ban would be announced in New York.
The storm is set to arrive almost a year to the day after New York's subway service was shut down due to a snowstorm that largely spared New York City, a move that prompted sharp criticism. De Blasio on Thursday said it did not appear that a subway shutdown would be needed for this storm, urging people to use mass transit if they need to travel, but he added that state and local authorities would coordinate before making a decision like that.
New Jersey residents were told to expect power outages, poor travel and coastal flooding, with emergency officials warning that heavy snowfall "can immobilize a region and strand commuters, close airports, stop the flow of supplies and disrupt emergency and medical services." Delaware authorities said Thursday afternoon that it was unclear if or when a state of emergency would be declared by the governor.
In Philadelphia, where a blizzard watch was announced for Friday through Monday, trucks were dispatched Wednesday to brine major arteries, bridge decks and elevated streets. The city's Streets Department was prepared for a full salt deployment once the snowfall begins.
To the south, the forecast becomes much more icy. The Carolinas will be ground zero for freezing rain - only a few tenths of an inch, but that's all it takes to bring down branches, topple power lines and turn roads dangerously slick.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, at least 1/4-inch of freezing rain is all but certain, and some models suggest as much as one inch.
Precipitation will probably begin as rain late Thursday and quickly change over to freezing rain, and mixing with sleet and rain through late Friday night. Then as the storm exits the Southeast, the temperature will drop further and freezing rain will change over to light snow, which will freeze surfaces solid.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said wintry weather in the state was already responsible for at least two deaths and declared a state of emergency Thursday as authorities readied for snow and ice expected to arrive through Saturday.
"Given the snow and ice accumulations that are predicted, combined with gusty winds and already saturated grounds, this storm has serious potential," McCrory said in a statement.
Two people were killed late Wednesday in incidents related to the snowfall and wintry conditions that arrived that day, according to McRory's office. A woman in Forsyth County died after crashing her car on a road coated with sleet and snow, while a woman in Stokes County drove into a creek after losing control on a snow-covered road, his office said.
A severe storm damaged a number of homes, fell trees and dropped power lines in the Oloh community in Lamar County, Miss., Thursday night,
Authorities in North Carolina urged drivers to stay off the road during the looming snowfall, but it was unclear how the storm would impact travel to an NFL playoff game set for Charlotte on Sunday. The Charlotte Panthers are scheduled to host the Arizona Cardinals Sunday evening to play for a spot in the Super Bowl, an event expected to draw thousands of people.