(CN) — East Coast states from the Carolinas to Maine are under blizzard watches as a “winter hurricane” bears down on them, forcing cancellation of more than 3,000 flights and closing schools in several states, where a foot or more of snow will be followed by bitter cold and fierce winds.
The National Weather Service warned that road travel Thursday could be dangerous to impossible from North Carolina up to Maine.
Public schools were closed from New York City to Washington, D.C., where the Office of Personnel Management told federal workers to go to work two hours late, due to wind chill temperatures of zero and light snow.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, to allow deployment of the National Guard if necessary, to help the state’s 1,500-member road crews and their 1,400 vehicles. State police reported 172 snow-related auto accidents by Thursday morning, and as many strandings, with no fatalities.
Most school districts canceled classes in Maryland, where not quite 2 inches of snow had fallen before sunrise in the Washington suburbs. Snow was predicted to taper off early there and in the nation’s capital, though a foot or more was expected on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Blizzards already were snarling Maryland and Capital-area roads as the sun rose, with whiteouts in wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service and local reports.
Philadelphia was under a snow emergency. Courts were open but schools were closed. Bitter cold is expected this weekend and the Jersey Shore, like the shore down to Virginia, was expected to get more than a foot of snow.
But with temperatures plunging into the teens overnight in Philadelphia, city officials said late Thursday they would close courts, schools and government offices on Friday. SEPTA, the city’s public transit system, as also curtailed some services due to the storm.
Meteorologists call it a winter hurricane or a bomb cyclone, because of the steep drop in atmospheric pressure at the heart of it — 24 millibars or more of atmospheric pressure in 24 hours: nearly equal to the drop at the heart of Superstorm Sandy that devastated the Northeast five years ago.
In New York, the cyclone knocked out service at John F. Kennedy Airport and 95 percent of the flights at LaGuardia, as well as all federal courthouses in the Southern District of New York.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency at a press briefing on Thursday morning.
“As everybody knows we have a snowstorm,” Cuomo told reporters. “But it’s a snowstorm plus, let’s call it, and we’re going to be declaring a state of emergency because the situation has continued to deteriorate.”
The storm is expected to blanket New York City with six to 10 inches of snow, but Cuomo said that the sustained winds of 30 mph and 60 mph gusts pose the real problem.
“The wind compounds the problem because snow is one thing,” Cuomo said. “Snow with 60 mile per hour gusts of wind are a totally different situation to deal with. It’s almost impossible to clear roads when you have those high wind gusts because as soon as you clear the road, the wind literally just brings the snow back across the road.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio predicted the “blizzard-like conditions” could coat the streets as high as a foot, and he urged city dwellers to stay indoors.
“Don’t go out if you don’t have to,” the mayor said. “Our Sanitation Department is out in full force, but we need people to stay off of the roads so that our crews can do their jobs.
In Philadelphia, area police confirmed a passenger in a car which careened down a slick, steep and snow-ridden hill died Thursday. The driver was able to escape the car as it slid uncontrollably toward a commuter train.
Police reported the passenger stayed in the vehicle as it crashed through a gate crossing but the body was later found by law enforcement along the train tracks. No one aboard the train was injured, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said.
The southern storm, moving up the East Coast, dropped 4 to 7 inches on parts of South Carolina as it headed toward a Nor’easter off New England. The relatively warm storm barreling up from the south will collide with a cold Nor’easter whose center is about 150 miles east of Cape Cod, to concentrate the storms’ power on New England.
Nor’easters are cyclonic because after blasting New England they double back off the coast and return from the northeast and –west.
New York City was expecting 5 to 8 inches of snow Thursday, and blizzards were expected from Rhode Island to Maine.
The good news, if any, was that with the Nor’easter’s center so far off the coast, snow accumulation was expected to decrease rapidly inland.
Thousands of people have lost power in Virginia, and due to the previous 10 days of frigid temperatures, and more to come, power companies are fearing fuel shortages. Widespread gusty winds can also be expected to knock out power over thousands of square miles.
A motorist in Vermont told a reporter that the wet, blowing snow and cold temperature reacted with his defroster when he turned it on so that “it was raining in my car.”
Meanwhile, in the Deep South, communities continues to dig out and deal with a rare 51/2 inches of snow.
Municipal offices and courts in Charleston, South Carolina and other towns in the Lowcountry will remain closed through Friday.
In Savannah, Georgia, an Amtrak train carrying more than 300 people from Miami to New York derailed due to icy conditions.
Amtrak spokesman Jason Abrams said the Silver Meteor train No. 98 was backing slowly into the Savannah station about 10 p.m. Wednesday – hours after the storm slamed the Southeast coast – when two sleeper cars and a baggage car derailed.
No injuries were reported.
(Courthouse News reporters Brandi Buchman and Brad Kutner in Virginia, Dan McCue in Charleston, S.C., Gina Carrano in Philadelphia, Adam Klasfeld and Amanda Ottaway in New York, and Robert Kahn in Vermont contributed to this report.)