WASHINGTON - Millions of Americans awoke Saturday to heavy snow outside their doorsteps as a mammoth winter storm crawled up the East Coast, making roads impassable, shutting down mass transit and bringing the nation's capital and its largest city to a standstill.
Most people seemed to heed warnings to stay home and off the roads, which were mostly empty. But the worst was yet to come, with life-threatening blizzard conditions expected to persist throughout the day. In addition to snow and high winds, the National Weather Service predicted up to a half-inch of ice accumulation in the Carolinas and potentially serious coastal flooding in the mid-Atlantic.
"Find a safe place and stay there," Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser implored residents and visitors alike.
The long-anticipated storm was living up to the billing that meteorologists had given it, except overnight it started to look even bigger. So forecasters increased their snowfall predictions for New York City and points north.
The storm now looks to be heavy all the way up to just south of Boston, said forecaster Patrick Burke at the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Eighteen to 24 inches was predicted for Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia; 24 to 30 inches for areas just north and west of Interstate 95 outside of the two cities; and 15 to 20 inches for New York, Burke said.
"This is kind of a top 10 snowstorm," said weather service winter storm expert Paul Kocin, who co-wrote a two-volume textbook on blizzards. And for New York and Washington this looks like top 5, he said. "It's a big one."
In Kentucky, where some places got 18 inches on Friday, drivers on a long stretch of Interstate 75 south of Lexington got stranded overnight because of a string of crashes and blowing snow. The road was closed, but reopened early Saturday, with traffic moving slowly, said Buddy Rogers, spokesman for Kentucky Emergency Management.
It was unclear exactly how many were stuck. Crews passed out snacks, fuel and water and tried to move cars one by one. Some had been stranded since Friday afternoon, and emergency shelters had opened.
Motorists also were reported stranded along pockets of the Pennsylvania Turnpike near the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel in Somerset County. The National Guard was called to help, said Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo.
In the Washington metro area, nearly 2 feet of snow was on the ground by Saturday morning. The federal government closed its offices at noon Friday, and all mass transit was to be shut down through Sunday. President Barack Obama was one of many who stayed home.
In Silver Spring, Maryland, about 20 inches of snow had fallen by daybreak.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled. Plows cleared a heavily travelled road for ambulances and trucks, but few other vehicles were moving. A couple of intrepid people walked along the cleared portion of the road, ducking into the deeper snow when vehicles approached.
Other states that got more than 6 inches included Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Parts of Georgia and Alabama received 1 to 3.5 inches.
In New Jersey, 40,000 people were without power early Saturday, most of them along the coast.
Even before the snow began to fall Friday afternoon, states of emergency were declared. Lawmakers went home, and schools, government offices and transit systems closed early from Georgia to New York.
The ice and snow made travel treacherous, with thousands of accidents and at least nine deaths reported along the region's roadways. By late Friday, Virginia State Police had reported 989 crashes statewide and had assisted nearly 800 disabled vehicles, police spokesman Ken Schrad said.
About 7,600 flights were cancelled Friday and Saturday — about 15 per cent of the airlines' schedules, according to the flight-tracking service FlightAware. They hope to be fully back in business by Sunday afternoon.
One of the unlucky travellers stranded by the storm was Jennifer Bremer of Raleigh, North Carolina. Bremer flew into Chicago on Thursday morning, carrying only a briefcase, for what she thought would be less than a day of meetings. Her flight home was cancelled Thursday night, then again Friday.
"I have my computer, my phone and a really good book, but no clothing," Bremer said as she eyed flight boards at O'Hare International Airport on Friday. "I have a travel agent right now trying to get creative. I'm waiting on a phone call from her. ... I'm trying to get somewhere near the East Coast where I can drive in tonight or early tomorrow morning."
Not so unhappy to be stranded were passengers on a cruise ship that was supposed to return to the port of Baltimore from the Bahamas on Sunday. The arrival has now been delayed until at least Monday because of the storm.
The snowstorm was greeted happily at Virginia's ski resorts.
"We're thrilled," said Hank Thiess, general manager at Wintergreen ski resort in central Virginia. "Going forward, we're set up to have just a terrific second half of the ski season."
He said he was expecting 40 inches of dry, powdery snow, perfect for skiing.
"We're going to have a packed snow surface that will just be outstanding," he said.
Borenstein reported from Kensington, Maryland.
Associated Press writers Juliet Linderman in Baltimore; Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee; John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia; and Scott Mayerowitz in New York contributed to this report.