Last Updated 6:30 p.m. EST
BOSTON A storm that forecasters warned could be a blizzard for the history books began battering the New York-to-Boston corridor Friday, grounding flights, closing workplaces and sending people rushing to get home ahead of a possible 1 to 3 feet of snow.
From New Jersey to Maine, shoppers crowded into supermarkets and hardware stores to buy food, snow shovels, flashlights as well as generators something that became a precious commodity after Superstorm Sandy in October. Others gassed up their cars, another lesson learned all too well after Sandy. Across much of New England, schools closed well ahead of the first snowflakes.
Halfway through what had been a mild winter across the Northeast, blizzard warnings were posted from parts of New Jersey to Maine. The National Weather Service said Boston could get close to 3 feet of snow by Saturday evening, while most of Rhode Island could receive more than 2 feet. Connecticut was bracing for 2 feet, and New York City was expecting as much as 14 inches.
By Friday evening, the New York-to-Boston corridor was getting swirling snow and freezing rain. Early snowfall was blamed for a 19-car pileup in Cumberland, Maine, that caused minor injuries.
The snow was expected to be at its heaviest Friday night and into Saturday. Forecasters said wind gusts up to 75 mph could cause widespread power outages and whip the snow into fearsome drifts. Flooding was expected along coastal areas still recovering from Superstorm Sandy.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency. He said Friday afternoon that the storm won't be nearly as bad as Sandy. The declaration will be made to give the government more flexibility in dealing with the snow and ice expected in the area. Cuomo says the weather will be bad, but the state has been through much worse.
He said so far, 2,300 flights have been canceled and the state's airports are expected to close early. Regional transportation is still running and is expected to continue throughout the night.
Massachusetts also declared a state of emergency. On Friday afternoon Gov. Deval Patrick signed an executive order banning all non-essential motor vehicle travel statewide beyond 4 p.m., believed to be the first such travel ban since the blizzard of 1978. The ban allows public safety workers, public health workers, utility and others associated with critical functions to continue working.
"This is a storm of major proportions," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said Friday. "Stay off the roads. Stay home."
The weather has already been blamed for a 19-car pileup on an interstate highway in Falmouth, Me.
Before the first snowflake had fallen, Boston, Providence, R.I., Hartford, Conn., and other New England cities canceled school Friday, and airlines scratched more than 4,000 flights through Saturday, with the disruptions from the blizzard certain to ripple across the U.S.
"This one doesn't come along every day. This is going to be a dangerous winter storm," said Alan Dunham, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton, Mass. "Wherever you need to get to, get there by Friday afternoon and don't plan on leaving."
To the south, Philadelphia was looking at a possible 4 to 6 inches.
"We hope forecasts are exaggerating the amount of snow, but you never can tell," Bloomberg said, adding that at least the bad weather is arriving on a weekend, when the traffic is lighter and snowplows can clean up the streets more easily.
The travel nightmare has begun
Airlines cancelled more than 4,700 flights Thursday, Friday and Saturday in preparation for the blizzard in the Northeast, according to FlightAware.com.
Most airlines were giving up on flying in and out of New York, Boston and other cities in the Northeast. Airlines were generally shutting down operations in the afternoon at the three big New York-area airports as well as Boston, Providence, R.I.; Portland, Maine; and other Northeast airports. They're hoping to resume flights on Saturday, although schedules weren't expected to be closer to normal until Sunday.
Many travelers were steering clear of that part of the country altogether. Airlines waived the usual fees to change tickets for flights in the affected areas.
Airlines try to get ahead of big storms by canceling flights in advance rather than crossing their fingers that they can operate in bad weather. They want to avoid having crews and planes stuck in one area of the country. They also face fines for leaving passengers stuck on a plane for more than three hours under a rule that went into effect back in 2010.
Airlines began canceling Saturday flights on Friday.
CBS News correspondent Terrell Brown also reports that Amtrak is suspending service in the Northeast Corridor this afternoon, with no trains between New York and Boston.
The last northbound regional train out of New York City departed 12:30 p.m., with northbound Acela Express service ending at 1:03 p.m.
The last Acela train southbound out of Boston South Station departed at 1:15 p.m., with the last regional service train departing 1:40 p.m.
Forecasters are calling the I-95 corridor Friday "treacherous," with white-out conditions.
Brown says forecasters are saying the snow will fall quickly and accumulate fast, so get to a safe place and be there, because you may have to stay there for quite some time.
States of Emergency
In addition to New York and Massachusetts, the governors of Connecticut and Rhode Island both declared states of emergency.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy imposed a travel ban Friday on the state's limited access highways and deployed National Guard troops around the state for rescues or other emergencies.
Nonessential state workers were ordered to stay home Friday. Schools, colleges and state courthouses were also closed. All flights after 1:30 p.m. at Bradley Airport near Hartford were canceled. Connecticut Transit planned to cease all bus service by 6 p.m. Friday.
A coastal flood warning was posted for southern Fairfield County, saying Friday evening's high tide could be 3 to 5 feet higher than normal in western Long Island Sound.
Some gas stations ran out of fuel Thursday night during the rush to prepare for the storm. The state's two biggest utilities planned for the possibility that up to 30 percent of their customers more than 400,000 homes and businesses would lose power.
In Rhode Island, Interstate 95 and other major highways have been closed to traffic as the state braced for up to 2 feet of snow. Transportation officials warned they may close the Newport Pell and Mount Hope bridges if high winds develop.
Nonessential state workers were sent home Friday afternoon. Many schools closed and transit service was suspended at noon Friday. The last plane left T.F. Green Airport near Providence just before 1:30 p.m. Friday; no other flights were scheduled to leave until Saturday.
National Grid reported about 1,200 customers without power early Friday evening. About 100 state plows were already out on the roads, bolstered by 200 private contractors, officials said.
New England braces
For New England this could prove to be among the top 10 snowstorms in history, forecasters said, and perhaps even break Boston's record of 27.6 inches, set in 2003. The last major snowfall in southern New England was well over a year ago -- the Halloween storm of 2011.
"This storm has the potential to be one of those events that you remember for a lifetime," said meteorologist Terry Eliasen, executive weather producer of CBS Station WBZ.
Dunham said southern New England has seen less than half its normal snowfall this season but, "We're going to catch up in a heck of a hurry," adding, "Everybody's going to get plastered with snow."
Diane Lopes was among the shoppers who packed a supermarket Thursday in the coastal fishing city of Gloucester, Mass. She said she went to a different grocery earlier in the day but it was too crowded. Lopes said she has strep throat and normally wouldn't leave the house but had to stock up on basic foods -- "and lots of wine."
She chuckled at the excitement the storm was creating in a place where snow is routine.
"Why are us New Englanders so crazy, right?" she said.
At a Shaw's supermarket in Belmont, Mass., Susan Lichtenstein stocked up, with memories of a 1978 blizzard on her mind. "This is panic shopping, so bread, milk, a snow shovel in case our snow shovel breaks," she said.
Terrance Rodriguez, a doorman at a luxury apartment complex in Boston, took the forecast in stride.
"It's just another day in Boston. It's to be expected. We're in a town where it's going to snow," he said. "It's like doomsday prep. It doesn't need to be. People just take it to the extreme."