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Major Storm Bears Down on Mid-Atlantic

Updated at 12:30 a.m. Eastern time

A major storm moving up the Atlantic Coast on the last shopping weekend before Christmas threatened to shut down much of the region as officials warned of up to 20 inches of snow and significant power outages.

People stocked up on groceries and other staples Friday after the National Weather Service issued winter storm warnings from the Carolinas to Rhode Island.

In Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm, placing the National Guard and other agencies on standby. Philadelphia officials also declared a state of emergency and the school district canceled all weekend activities. Washington, D.C., declared a snow emergency.

The Federal Aviation Administration said departing flights at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were delayed by as much as an hour Friday because of rain and wind. United Airlines said it had already canceled more than 140 Saturday flights on the East Coast ahead of Saturday's weather.

At least three major airlines are letting customers fly earlier than expected this weekend without penalty, hoping to avoid an airport crunch, reports CBS News Correspondent Jeff Glor.

As towns and cities up and down the east coast get roads ready, the timing could not be much worse for holiday shoppers and retailers. Up to $1 billion in goods was expected to trade hands in the last shopping weekend before the Christmas holiday, Glor reports.

"Snow always has a negative impact," Bill Martin of retail analysis group ShopperTrak.com told Glor. "It will also keep shoppers from actually traveling out, particularly on the first day of the snowstorm."

Retail experts say bad weather typically drops sales by 10 percent, but with more than two feet of snow in some spots it could, clearly, get worse, Glor reports.

Forecasters expected up to 20 inches of snow through late Saturday from the Washington metro area to West Virginia. They said it could be the most snow in the nation's capital since a February 2003 storm dumped nearly 27 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The Archdiocese of Washington says dangerous travel conditions caused by bad weather is a legitimate excuse from attending Sunday Mass.

Up to a foot of snow was forecast in parts of Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Appalachian Power, which serves 1 million customers in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, warned of the potential for an extended power outage if wet, heavy snow falls.

In western North Carolina around Asheville, almost 60,000 customers of Progress Energy were without power by late Friday night. In northern Virginia, more than 1,500 customers had lost power from Dominion Virginia Power.

By 8 p.m., state police were responding to 349 reported traffic accidents across the state. Some injuries were reported, but no fatalities.

The storm came from the Gulf and drenched South Florida with rain starting late Thursday, leaving flooded homes and stranded drivers.

In southern West Virginia, Ron Hart's hardware store had sold out of many supplies after a wind storm last week knocked out electricity for days. On Friday, he was swamped again as customers bought heaters and other storm supplies.

"People are having to spend money on bare essentials versus Christmas," Hart said. "Our Christmas sales are considerably down because of what people are having to buy."

Jim Weintraub, owner of Ace Hardware in Asheville, N.C., where a foot or more of snow was expected, said he picked up 1,500 pounds of rock salt Friday morning. An hour-and-a-half later, "I'm just about out," he said.

But customers were thinking fun, too.

"I've been told we're the only store around with sleds," Weintraub said. "As I was driving back up to the store, my wife was calling me and saying, 'Where are you? People are waiting for sleds!"'

Some shoppers were trying to get their holiday buying done ahead of the snow.

"Most of them are coming in this morning to shop before they get snowed in," said Kayla Mahr at the Bath and Body shop at the River Ridge Mall in Lynchburg, Va.

Highway crews in Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia were spraying brine on heavily traveled roads to help prevent snow and ice from sticking. Delaware crews were to be sent home in the afternoon to rest up for what one official said would be a long weekend.

Dozens of accidents were reported Friday in Virginia as roads became slick.

Officials urged motorists to be cautious in deciding whether to drive Saturday.

Amtrak spokeswoman Karina Romero said the railway was putting extra crews on duty, in part to keep ice from forming on the overhead lines that power electric trains. Extra locomotives equipped with snow plows would also be available.

Some universities in Virginia and Maryland canceled final exams and weekend commencement exercises.

On the Tennessee-North Carolina line, the National Park Service closed a road through Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains after it got 4 inches of snow.

Ski operators were basking in the forecast, as long as motorists didn't get stuck en route to the slopes.

"The problem we have is not the customers, it's our staff getting here," said Brad Moretz, general manager of North Carolina's Appalachian Ski Mountain.

After a warm start to the ski season that delayed openings of many resorts, the storm arrived just in time for Winterplace Ski Resort's season debut Friday in southern West Virginia.

"It's perfect timing," said Winterplace President Terry Pfeiffer. "With the new snow coming in, there's not going to be much better skiing."

The Coast Guard sent an airplane to fly from North Carolina to New Jersey warning boaters by radio to stay in port if they didn't have an urgent need to be on the water.

Elsewhere in the East, church groups canceled Christmas programs, basketball games were called off and Delta Airlines canceled some flights Saturday at the Roanoke, Va., airport.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for west Alabama, where rivers were still swollen from heavy rains earlier this week and as much as 3 more inches of rain was possible.