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Forecasters warn East Coast snowstorm may be "crippling"

Last Updated Jan 20, 2016 4:14 PM EST

WASHINGTON -- As the South and East braced for a nor'easter with the potential for significant snowfall by week's end, snow fell on much of Kentucky and Tennessee and contributed to at least one traffic-related death Wednesday.

The National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center warns of heavy, "perhaps crippling" snow across the northern mid-Atlantic region, including Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia, probably beginning Friday.

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday that the city was preparing for blizzard conditions and up to 2 feet of snow. The city has requested Humvees from the National Guard to reach isolated people and places if necessary.

"If this is a blizzard and we have sustained winds and people lose power, that would be my biggest concern," Bowser said at a news conference. "We can move the snow. We will move the snow."

In the areas where blizzard conditions are possible, the weather service warns that travel will be limited if not impossible. The strongest winds and potentially life threatening conditions are expected Friday night through Saturday night.

A truck driver lost control, slid off the road and struck several trees before coming to a stop in Hamblen County, Tennessee, Jan. 20, 2016.
A truck driver lost control, slid off the road and struck several trees before coming to a stop in Hamblen County, Tennessee, Jan. 20, 2016.
WVLT-TV

On Wednesday, the weather service issued blizzard and winter storm watches for parts of Maryland, Washington, Virginia and West Virginia. The watches start as early as Thursday and stretch into Saturday.

The storm will bring ice and freezing rain to Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky starting Thursday, prediction center meteorologist Rich Otto said. But it's not yet clear where the storm will hit the hardest, he said Wednesday.

"There's a lot of details that are yet to be seen," Otto said. "Subtle changes can make a big difference. We've seen that in storms in the past."

Lonnie Quinn, chief weathercaster of CBS New York station WCBS-TV, reports that computer models show the center of the storm hitting the Appalachian and Blue Ridge mountains Friday afternoon and dropping as many as 12-20 inches of snow.

The storm could drop as much as a foot of snow from Trenton, New Jersey, in the north to Charlottesville, Virginia, in the south, Quinn reports.

Snow in much of Kentucky and Tennessee led school districts and some universities to cancel classes Wednesday and contributed to at least one traffic death, and officials warned motorists to be cautious of slick roads.

The Knox County, Tennessee, Sheriff's Department says a car slid off the roadway due to speed and slick conditions, killing the driver and injuring a passenger.

Tara Jakeway with "Chasing News" makes a snow angel in the man-made snow in Central Park Jan. 20, 2016, as part of Winter Jam NYC's Ultimate Snow Day.
Tara Jakeway with "Chasing News" makes a snow angel in the man-made snow in Central Park Jan. 20, 2016, as part of Winter Jam NYC's Ultimate Snow Day.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Forecasters said another cold front will hit Thursday night and Friday and could dump more snow over the region before traveling eastward.

Forecasters said Wednesday it's too early to know exactly how much snow a potential storm will bring to eastern Pennsylvania, but that wasn't stopping preparations around the region.

Mitchell Gaines, of the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, New Jersey, said snow totals will be more apparent by Wednesday night. However, he cautioned that when it hits, people should be prepared for strong winds, heavy, wet snow and power outages.

There's still some uncertainty about what effect a weekend storm will have on southern New England, but officials are preparing for the worst.

The National Weather Service said Wednesday that there is a potential for 6 inches of snow or more in the region. High winds and coastal flooding are possible.

A woman bundles up during the morning commute on Wall Street in lower Manhattan in New York Jan. 19, 2016.
A woman bundles up during the morning commute on Wall Street in lower Manhattan in New York Jan. 19, 2016.
Reuters/Brendan McDermid

But meteorologist Matthew Belk said it all depends on the storm's track.

"You want to be prepared for the possibility for a significant weather storm, but there's a possibility it might not amount to much," Belk said.

The storm is expected to miss northern New England. Meteorologist Tom Hawley of the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, says the storm's path could shift, but right now "all indications are that it will not amount to much" in the region. If the storm says to the south, southern Maine and New Hampshire could see up to 1 to 2 inches of snow at the most. Little to no snow is in the forecast for Vermont.

Organizers of the March for Life say their annual anti-abortion rally in Washington will be held Friday, as scheduled.

The rally on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision is one of the largest events on the National Mall. Thousands of abortion opponents gather to listen to speeches before marching to the Supreme Court.

Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said many participants have already started traveling to Washington.

"I'm pretty certain there will be a strong contingent there that feels passionately about this issue and will march," Mancini said.

Even the organizers of a snowball fight are nervous about the storm that's expected to hit the nation's capital.

The Washington D.C. Snowball Fight Association is taking a wait-and-see approach to its gathering in Dupont Circle, tentatively scheduled for Saturday.

"If it is still blizzard conditions, that's not the optimal conditions. We might have to move it. Maybe to Sunday, maybe later on Saturday," snowball fight organizer Ami Greener said. "Once it stops snowing, anything is good. Two feet of snow is fine."

Simon Martinez, 48, felt fortunate to find a new snow shovel at a True Value hardware store in northwest Washington. He tried a nearby Home Depot first, without success.

"It's crazy there," he said, adding that they were also out of salt.

In Baltimore, Director of Emergency Management Bob Maloney urged residents to make sure they have enough water to last for three days, along with a working flashlight and a battery-operated radio.

For Mitchell Cohen, owner of Cohen & Co. Hardware in Center City Philadelphia, the snowy forecast is good news.

He said he has been getting calls from people asking to hold shovels for pickup on Friday and Saturday. He was getting shovels and snow melt delivered Wednesday.

"For us, it's good," Cohen said. "We live right around corner so it's no problem getting here, no matter how bad it gets. We'll be open all weekend."