Sidewalks vanished beneath white mounds. The view of Manhattan was swallowed in a mass of gray. The lights even went out on Broadway. And that was before the storm trumpeted as a potentially record-setting blizzard had fully settled over the frigid Northeast on Monday.
As darkness fell, New York City headed for its most complete shutdown since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the city’s subways and buses, the sole mode of transport for millions of New York City residents, would stop running at 11 p.m. Commuter railroads that carry tens of thousands of people between New York City and its suburbs also were to be taken out.
A citywide driving ban went into effect at 11 p.m. for all but emergency and essential vehicles, virtually ensuring that the nation's largest city would grind to a halt. Similar orders were issued for Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut.
“I don’t think it’s draconian. I think it’s necessary,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “This is a common sense thing to do.”
The storm, which forecasters warned could bring 1 to 3 feet of snow and heavy winds, began early Monday with light flakes. As the day wore on, winds picked up, snow began covering streets, and the clank of metal scraping on pavement sounded in neighborhoods as plows fanned out. The storm's full brunt was not expected until overnight or early Tuesday, but officials, eager to prevent people from becoming stranded on roads or in their offices, quickly began announcing steps to keep people at home.
As the storm strengthened and officials’ warnings took on greater urgency, transit hubs filled with people trying to get home.
For many, it was slow going.
“They're running the regular schedule, but there's three times as many people,” Jenna Freed said of one bus company as she waited at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan for a ride back to New Jersey. “They're telling people to get out early, but you can't.”
States of emergency were declared in New Jersey, southern New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Some counties in Pennsylvania also were under emergency declarations. Major highways were declared off-limits to non-emergency vehicles, and schools were closed across the region. Boston also announced a closure of its public transport system starting Monday night.
In New York, the United Nations announced it would close Tuesday, and the Broadway shows scheduled Monday were canceled. It was unclear whether performances would resume Tuesday.
Sebastian Gross, a visitor from Munich, Germany, was one of eight people who braved the snow and wind to stand in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square, hoping to get half-price tickets for the night’s performance of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Gross figured he’d have no trouble buying a ticket, but 20 minutes before they were to go on sale, a TKTS employee emerged and announced the cancellations.
“I wanted a white Christmas, but that didn't happen,” Gross said. “Now, I have my snow. Lots of it.”
Gross was scheduled to return to Germany on Wednesday, but it was unclear when he would get out of New York. More than 3,200 flights were canceled Monday in the United States, including more than half of those scheduled to arrive at New York's three major airports, according to FlightAware, a website that monitors airline activity. The situation Tuesday looked even worse, with more than 4,300 cancellations, including nearly all flights in and out of the region.
All but essential state employees were let out of work early across the region so that they wouldn’t get stuck on the roads later.
“Stay home if you can,” or go out only in “an absolute emergency or necessity,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.
By early afternoon, Penn Station, a major transit hub serving Amtrak, Long Island Rail Road, New Jersey Transit and city subways, was humming with travelers.
One of them was Vincent Yeager, who had put in a morning's work at his office before heading home early to Hazlet, N.J. He expected to be back to his normal routine by Wednesday.
“Everyone always overreacts, thinking it's going to be the end of the world, but it's really just Mother Nature,” Yeager said.
But another traveler, Debbie Corbett of Buffalo, N.Y., had more respect for nature's wrath. In November, she experienced a storm that dropped 7 feet of snow in Buffalo.
Corbett and her 15-year-old daughter, Clare, cut short their visit to New York and were waiting to catch a train to Buffalo, where only light snow was forecast. “In November, we were trapped in our house for days,” she said.
A snowstorm two years ago left scores of vehicles stranded on the Long Island Expressway, and November’s Buffalo storm was blamed for a dozen deaths. They included at least one person buried in his car on the side of a highway.
Cuomo and De Blasio said the transit shutdowns were aimed at preventing those scenarios in this storm. Cuomo said officials also wanted to stop subways to protect the subway cars, some of which run on above-ground lines. There was no indication when the subways would resume service.
“The good news is that the sun will come out again,” Cuomo said.
He wasn’t the only one trying to find the bright side of the blizzard. In Haddonfield, N.J., Scott Murphy affixed a plow to his pickup and planned to be up all night plowing for extra money.
“You make it while you can,” he said before heading off to catch a pre-blizzard nap.
Times staff writers Joseph Tanfani in New Jersey and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in New York contributed to this report.