Snowplows at the ready, the Northeast braced for what forecasters warned could be a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard” that could dump up to 3 feet of snow from Philadelphia to Boston starting Monday.
Tens of millions of Americans live in the path of the storm, which is expected to hit New Jersey, New York City, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts especially hard. The “nor’easter” could shut down the nation’s most densely populated region for days, closing schools and businesses from Monday afternoon through the week, officials warned.
New Yorkers jammed checkout aisles to buy food, water, batteries and snow shovels Sunday after Mayor Bill de Blasio said thousands of workers were preparing for “one of the top two or three largest storms in the history of this city.”
In Morningside Heights in Manhattan, shoppers clogged Westside Market’s narrow aisles, and checkout lines stretched 20 deep. “It’s chaos,” manager Nick Glenis said. “You might need shoulder pads today. It’s full-contact shopping.”
Blizzard warnings from New Jersey to Maine will take effect at midday Monday and were to last through early Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. Up to 4 inches of snow could fall per hour in some areas, with wind gusts up to 70 mph and some coastal flooding expected.
The powerful storm could slightly reshape parts of the coast, eroding some beaches and creating new inlets, according to the weather service’s bureau in Taunton, Mass. Some homes near the ocean could be destroyed and entire neighborhoods isolated, requiring evacuations, forecasters said. Visibility could be so poor that going outdoors could bring disorientation and death.
Governors and mayors across the region called for residents to watch the forecast, stock up on supplies, and check on elderly and disabled neighbors who could be especially vulnerable. Officials began preparing equipment for snow removal and shelters for the homeless.
New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo urged commuters to stay home Monday and said the Port Authority, which operates the region’s airports, would have cots on hand for stranded passengers. Airlines had canceled more than 1,400 Monday flights by Sunday evening, and more than 1,000 Tuesday flights, according to FlightAware.com.
De Blasio urged residents to stay off the roads and take mass transit if possible to make way for hundreds of salt spreaders and snowplows to treat New York City’s 6,000 miles of roads. (De Blasio, a populist Democrat from Brooklyn, was criticized a year ago, during his first month in office, after residents in Manhattan’s wealthy Upper East Side complained that snowplows were too slow in sweeping their streets.)
At a news conference, De Blasio displayed a list of snowstorms since 1872 and warned, “We need to prepare for something worse than we’ve seen before.” The city’s record for a single storm is just over 26 inches of snow, which came in 2006.
Predictions for a blizzard worsened rapidly over the weekend as forecasters tracked a storm expected to move northward along the Atlantic coast over the next several days. As the storm system travels up the coast, cold air is expected to move down from Canada behind it, causing temperatures to drop.
As with Atlantic hurricanes, which follow a similar pattern, the blizzard’s severity will depend on how far off the coast the center of the storm tracks. Forecasters emphasized that the final snow totals could vary considerably depending on the storm’s movements over the next 48 hours.
“Although storms can be unpredictable, this storm has the potential to have a significant impact on the state and we need to be prepared,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement. “Just as the state is monitoring and preparing, the public should do the same.”
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said he had been in “constant communication” with city officials as workers prepared 700 pieces of snow-removal equipment and 35,000 tons of salt.
“Our city has been through blizzards before, and I am confident we are prepared,” Walsh said in a statement. He asked Boston residents to do their part by removing snow, slush and ice from sidewalks and curbs.
In New Jersey, Hoboken emergency officials ordered scaffolding removed because of the expected heavy winds.
“My major concern is power outages,” Hoboken Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante said. “We still have a lot of above-ground lines. With the heavy snow and 70 mph winds, there’s risks of wires being severed and things coming off buildings, scaffolding coming down.”
In New York City, which was blasted by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, officials planned to store trains underground to shield them from the weather and to fit buses with snow tires. Officials urged employers to allow workers to adjust their shifts to stay safe from the storm.
But residents greeted the dire forecasts with stressed-out shopping and not a small amount of shrugging.
“It’s winter — what do you expect?” Rebecca Quinn said as she closed the Stannard Farm booth at a farmers market outside Columbia University.
At the Fairway Market in West Harlem, Gregory Lorenz, a member of the Metropolitan Opera chorus, said he first went to another Fairway but couldn’t get in the door because of the crowd. “It was madness,” he said. So he took a taxi to another branch of the supermarket.
But Lorenz said he was not fazed by the blizzard forecast: He was using his family’s regular weekly shopping list. “I’m from North Dakota,” he said. “I love snow, but a little panic is good for everyone.”
At University Housewares and Hardware store in Manhattan, customers were buying batteries, sidewalk salt and ice scrapers to clear their windshields.
“Everyone is going crazy,” said Carl Wennerlind as he left with his 8-year-old son, Langston, his 5-year-old daughter, Selma, and two brand-new sleds.
“Mostly we’re trying to get food in the house,” Wennerlind said, “But we are getting that which is really necessary.”
By that, he meant the sleds.
Times staff writer Pearce reported from Los Angeles and special correspondent Haller from New York. Staff writers David Lauter in Washington, D.C., and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in New Jersey contributed to this report.