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Blizzard set to hit U.S. East snarls flights, shuts offices

Snow plows and traffic make their way north along Interstate 95 as snow begins to fall in Ashland, Va., Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. Portions of Virginia are under a blizzard warning. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Snow plows and traffic make their way north along Interstate 95 as snow begins to fall in Ashland, Va., Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. Portions of Virginia are under a blizzard warning. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

(Bloomberg) -- At least 50 million people are in the path of a paralyzing winter storm that prompted the cancellation of thousands of flights, closed government offices, and threatens Washington with one of its worst snowfalls on record. New York is bracing for a blizzard.

More than 2 feet (61 centimeters) of snow should start falling in Washington and Baltimore later Friday before moving up the coast, according to the National Weather Service. New York will start to get snow Saturday and will probably see more than 6 inches along with heavy winds.

“There are blizzard warnings for the whole corridor from Washington to Philadelphia, New York and Long Island,” said Dan Petersen, a meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. “It is going to put us in the top couple of snowstorms down here. It’s a historic snow storm.”

The heaviest three-day snow to fall in the Washington area was 28 inches in January 1922, according to the weather service. Baltimore received 26.8 inches in February 2003. While the East Coast cities bear the brunt of some of the heaviest snow, the storm is a national event, with a tornado and severe thunderstorms across the South and an ice storm stretching from Kentucky into North Carolina.

Alerts posted

Winter storm warnings and advisories stretch from Louisiana to Massachusetts.

“Right now things are progressing as they have been forecast,” said Tyler Roys, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. The leading edge of the snow was moving toward Washington at midday after blanketing parts of the South, he said.

More than 38,000 homes and businesses from Arkansas to Pennsylvania were blacked out as of about noon New York time Friday, according to utility websites.

“It has the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm,” Louis Uccellini, director of the National Weather Service, said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It is a potentially paralyzing storm.”

Travel trouble

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged people to avoid traveling Saturday and Sunday. In Washington, federal offices closed at noon, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s website. Public schools closed and Washington Metro will halt city buses at 5 p.m. and rail travel at 11 p.m. Both bus and subway services will remain shut through Sunday.

One major Washington event will go on as scheduled: the annual March for Life marking the Roe v. Wade anniversary, the event’s organizers said in a release. The White House has canceled tours on Saturday.

Almost 5,550 flights around the U.S. were grounded for Friday and Saturday as of 11:45 a.m. New York time, according to Houston-based FlightAware, an airline tracking service. Most were in the New York and Washington areas.

Amtrak canceled several trains in the East Coast and across the South. North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Georgia lifted some trucking restrictions to help expedite fuel deliveries.

NYC outlook

New York can expect 6 to 10 inches, said Steve LaVoie, a meteorologist at Hometown Forecast Services Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire. The high winds associated with the storm and periods of heavy snow triggered New York and Long Island blizzard warnings. Wind gusts of 50 miles per hour are possible in Manhattan and the rest of New York starting Saturday into Sunday, the weather service said.

The line between heavy snow and not much at all will be a fine one in the New York area, so the area just north of the city will probably have amounts drop off sharply. At the same time, New Jersey could end up as much as 18 inches, the weather service said.

Related: Can you successfully subrogate snow-removal claims?

Roys said meteorologists are still trying to pinpoint where that line will be.

“Over a very short distance, there will be a great gradient from a lot to nothing,” Roys said. “That is the one thing that we are still trying to figure out.”

Boston will probably be spared any real problems. The city that saw a record snowfall last year may get 2 inches by Sunday, according to the weather service.

“In Boston, it’s still not a big deal,” LaVoie said.

--With assistance from Mark Chediak, Steven T. Dennis, Mary Schlangenstein, Lars Paulsson, Angela Greiling Keane, Jim Polson and Laura Blewitt.

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Copyright 2016 Bloomberg. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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