NEW YORK >> Tens of millions of people along the Philadelphia-to-Boston corridor rushed to get home and settle in Monday as a fearsome storm swirled in with the potential for hurricane-force winds and 1 to 3 feet of snow that could paralyze the Northeast for days.
In midtown Manhattan near Madison Square Garden just before midnight, the snow and wind had started to pick up, and light snow was falling in Boston. Forecasters said the storm would build into a blizzard, and the brunt of it would hit late Monday and into Tuesday.
As the snow got heavier, much of the region rushed to shut down.
More than 7,700 flights in and out of the Northeast were canceled, and many of them may not take off again until Wednesday. Schools and businesses let out early. Government offices closed. Shoppers stocking up on food jammed supermarkets and elbowed one another for what was left. Broadway stages went dark.
“It’s going to be ridiculous out there, frightening,” said postal deliveryman Peter Hovey, standing on a snowy commuter train platform in White Plains, New York.
All too aware that big snowstorms can make or break politicians, governors and mayors moved quickly to declare emergencies and order the shutdown of streets and highways to prevent travelers from getting stranded and to enable plows and emergency vehicles to get through.
“This will most likely be one of the largest blizzards in the history of New York City,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio warned.
He urged New Yorkers to go home and stay there, adding: “People have to make smart decisions from this point on.”
Commuters like Sameer Navi. 27, of Long Island, were following the advice.
Navi, who works for Citigroup in Manhattan, said he takes the Long Island Rail Road every day and left work early Monday after warnings by local officials to get home before the brunt of the storm. “I did leave earlier than usual,” he said. “Penn Station less crowded than I thought it would be so I’m guessing people left earlier or didn’t go to work today.”
Up to now, this has been a largely snow-free winter in the urban Northeast. But this storm threatened to make up the difference in a single blow.
Boston was expected to get 2 to 3 feet of snow, New York 1 1/2 to 2 feet and Philadelphia more than a foot.
The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for a 250-mile swath of the region, meaning heavy, blowing snow and potential whiteout conditions. Forecasters warned that the wind could gust to 75 mph or more along the Massachusetts coast and up 50 mph farther inland.
New York City’s subways and buses were suspended at 11 p.m. In Massachusetts, ferry service to Martha’s Vineyard was greatly curtailed and to Nantucket was suspended. Commuter railroads across the Northeast announced plans to stop running overnight, and most flights out of the region’s major airports were canceled.
Authorities banned travel on all streets and highways in New York City and on Long Island and warned that violators could be fined $300. Even food deliveries were off-limits on the streets of takeout-friendly Manhattan. The governors of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island also slapped restrictions on nonessential travel.
“We learned the lesson the hard way,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, referring to instances in which motorists got stranded in the snow for 24 hours or more.
In New Jersey, plows and salt spreaders remained at work on the roads Monday night in Ocean County, one of the areas that were expected to be among the hardest hit. There was a coating of snow on the roads but hardly any vehicles were traveling on them, as residents seemed content to stay indoors and monitor the storm in comfort.
Most businesses in the area had gone dark, including some convenience stores and gas stations.
Earlier in the day, Nicole Coelho, a nanny from Lyndhurst, New Jersey, stocked up on macaroni and cheese, frozen pizzas and milk at a supermarket.
“I’m going to make sure to charge up my cellphone, and I have a good book I haven’t gotten around to reading yet,” she said.
Shopping cart gridlock descended on Fairway, the gourmet grocery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The meat shelves were all but bare, customers shoved past each other and outside on Broadway the checkout line stretched for a block as the wind and snow picked up. Store employees said it was busier than Christmastime.
Ben Shickel went grocery shopping in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and found shelves had been cleaned out.
“We’re used to these big snowstorms in New England, but 2 to 3 feet all at once and 50 to 60 mph winds? That’s a different story,” he said.
Last minute shoppers filed into the Jersey City ShopRite Monday evening, looking to stock up before the brunt of the storm hit. “I heard it’s supposed to be snowing for two days straight, so we plan on staying inside and munching,” said 18-year old Christian Waiters, who serves in the military.
On Wall Street, however, the New York Stock Exchange stayed open and said it would operate normally Tuesday as well.
Coastal residents braced for a powerful storm surge and the possibility of damaging flooding and beach erosion, particularly in New Jersey and on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Officials in New Jersey shore towns warned people to move their cars off the streets and away from the water.
Utility companies across the region put additional crews on standby to deal with anticipated power outages.
The storm posed one of the biggest tests yet for Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been in office for less than three weeks. He warned residents to prepare for power outages and roads that are “very hard, if not impossible, to navigate.”
The storm interrupted jury selection in the Boston Marathon bombing case and forced a postponement in opening statements in the murder trial of former NFL star Aaron Hernandez in Fall River, Massachusetts.
The Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots got out of town just in time, leaving from Logan Airport around midday for Phoenix, where the temperature will reach the high 60s.
The Washington area was expecting only a couple of inches of snow. But the House postponed votes scheduled for Monday night because lawmakers were having difficulty flying back to the nation’s capital after the weekend.
Associated Press writers Dave Collins and Pat Eaton-Robb in Hartford, Connecticut; David Porter in Lyndhurst, New Jersey; Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains; Bruce Shipkowski in Trenton, New Jersey; Deepti Hajela, Jonathan Lemire, Verena Dobnik and Mike Balsamo in New York; Albert Stumm in Philadelphia; and Marcy Gordon and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.