By Gary Strauss, Doyle Rice and Kevin McCoy
A blizzard predicted to be of epic proportions is pounding the Northeast, already bringing more than a foot of snow to some areas as 40 million residents in its path brace for the worst.
By 11 p.m. ET, about 350,000 homes and businesses had lost electricity as wet snow, freezing rain and howling winds caused havoc. Most of the outages are in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
More than 14 inches of snow has fallen in Belmont, Mass., just northwest of Boston. More than 13 inches cover parts of northeastern Connecticut.
And the worst is not expected until early Saturday, the National Weather Service warned. Blizzard warnings are in effect for the New York City metro area and many coastal sections of New England. Hurricane winds of up to 75 mph are also possible.
As part of a new effort to name winter storms, the Weather Channel dubbed the blizzard "Nemo."
Finding Nemo hasn't been an issue: it's been leaving noticeable havoc. The snow caused a 19-car, four-hour pileup on I-295 near Cumberland, Maine. Several people had minor injuries, police said. In Vermont, which could get 4 to 16 inches of snow, the storm was being blamed for a series of crashes on I-89 in Bolton and South Burlington. Two people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries.
More than 4,700 flights in the region had been canceled through Saturday, and Amtrak was suspending southbound service out of Boston and northbound service out of New York City by Friday afternoon. In New York, sleet was falling at LaGuardia and Newark airports. Another 240 flights were canceled at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, where nearly a foot of snow was forecast.
By 6 p.m. Friday, Wayne N.J., had 7 inches, Darien, Conn., 6 inches and parts of the New York metro area had received 2.5 inches. Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts had already declared a state of emergency. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency Friday afternoon as the storm intensified.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage sent state workers home at 3 p.m. and declared a limited emergency to allow longer hours for utility crews. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick banned all traffic from roads after 4 p.m., believed to be the state's first such ban since the blizzard of 1978. Forecasters said Boston could get more than the 27.6-inch record of 2003.
Utility officials are warning customers to prepare for power outages lasting for days. New England and New York are expected to take the hardest hit, but others around the country could feel the ripple effect from canceled flights trains and snarled traffic along the Eastern Seaboard, parts which are still reeling from the fallout of October's Superstorm Sandy.
Northeast New Jersey was bracing for up to 14 inches. Parts of the coast were expected to see waves up to 12 feet and minor to moderate flooding during high tide.
In New Jersey, residents of Brick Township and Toms River, both crippled by Sandy, were urged to evacuate Friday.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker urged residents to prepare for widespread power failures. Booker, a prolific Twitter user, urged his nearly 1.4 million followers to get ready for the storm. "Nwk's City Snow Team is prepared for 6-12 inches," he tweeted from @corybooker a couple minutes after 5 p.m. on Thursday. "We have many snow assets in reserve should storm get worse. Please take time 2 prepare too."
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the blizzard wasn't expected to rival Sandy's fallout, but urged everyone to "stay in your homes while the worst of the storm is upon us."
He urged New Yorkers to leave work early and avoid commuting Friday evening, when meteorologists predict the snowfall to intensify.
Bloomberg said there were no immediate plans to declare a storm emergency, because that would require vehicle owners to move them off emergency routes - raising the potential some could get stuck and block snowplows.
Similarly, Bloomberg did not order evacuations from low-lying areas, explaining that storm surges were not expected to reach Sandy's disastrous levels. Still, the city will have emergency shelters open and available for anyone who needs assistance, he said.
About 1,700 city Department of Sanitation snowplows were ready to start clearing streets Friday evening.
The New York City metro area, home to three airports and 20 million residents in four states, was bracing for up to 12 inches of snow, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
At 7 p.m. in downtown Boston, wind picked up to a point to where pedestrians had to occasionally hold onto light poles to keep from being blown down the street. Snow fell sideways and stung faces like needles.
Outside John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, David Comar and oworkers shoveled as vigorously as the snow fell.
The team had been out since 1 p.m. and would work until about 9, when conditions were expected to intensify, said supervisor Jimmy Figueroa.
A couple of blocks away, Oscar Medrano, an employee of Central Parking Systems, continually drove a truck with plow through a small parking lot. Like the men outside the convention center, he'd also started in the afternoon. Medrano said he would keep shoveling until midnight.
"Just keeps coming," said Medrano, 40.
Massachusetts is keeping residents informed through a 2-year-old hyperlocal app called Ping4, which sends localized alerts to mobile phones.
Ping4 has the ability to send alerts only to phones within an affected geographical area so that people are not pummeled with alerts that do not affect them, said Jim Bender, founder and CEO of Ping4, based in Nashua, N.H.
In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino said the city has 34,000 pounds of salt to treat icy roads. "Stay off the roads. Stay home. Let the public works crews do their jobs," Merino said.
As several businesses closed early to prepare for the storm, Downtown Wine & Spirits in Somerville, Mass., prepared for one of its busiest days this year. "The second most important thing besides food is booze," said Downtown Wine & Spirits wine buyer Peter Powlovich, 29.
With extra staff and beer, the liquor store remains open for normal business hours unless there's a power outage, Powlovich said.
The storm isn't expected to have a major economic impact on New England, said economist David Iaia of Lexington, Mass.-based IHS Global Insight.
"If everything just shuts down for a day, the vast majority of business merely gets shifted to before the storm or after the storm," Iaia said.
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Anticipating the storm's impact, every big U.S. airline has issued flexible re-booking policies. The move allowed most fliers ticketed to fly to airports in the storm's path to make one change to their flights without the standard change fees.
With such a large number of cancellations, the flight disruptions in New York and the Northeast are all but certain to ripple through airports across the nation. A flight from Houston to Los Angeles, for example, could become delayed or canceled if the aircraft or crew scheduled to fly it gets knocked off schedule because of problems in Boston or New York.
Snarled transportation aside, ski resorts all over New England are excited about the biggest snowfall of the season.
"If I had a tail, it would be wagging," says Stowe Mountain Resort spokesman Mike Colbourn. "Presidents (Day) week is next week, a big nor'easter - all of the stars are in alignment."
"As far as where the big ski areas are, we are at ground zero for this storm - we are in the 24-inch band," says Bruce McCloy, director of Marketing for Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury, N.H., "We are so excited! It's going to be awesome. How are we getting ready? We are dancing a jig, and then after that, we are getting ready. We haven't had any big storms in the past two years, so this is really big."
Contributing: Melanie Eversley, Ben Mutzabaugh, Stephanie Haven; Alesha Williams, Laura Petrecca, Natalie DiBlasio, TIm Mullaney; Associated Press