BOSTON — A storm that forecasters warned could be a blizzard for the history books began clobbering the New York-to-Boston corridor on 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 and 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.
"This is a storm of major proportions," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said. "Stay off the roads. Stay home."
By Friday evening, Boston had just 2.5 inches of snow and New York City had just 2, but parts of southeastern Massachusetts had more than 6 inches and central Rhode Island had more than 8. And the National Weather Service warned the worst was still to come.
The wind-whipped snowstorm mercifully arrived at the start of a weekend, which meant fewer cars on the road and extra time for sanitation crews to clear the mess before commuters in the New York-to-Boston region of roughly 25 million people have to go back to work. But it could also mean a weekend cooped up indoors.
Rainy Neves, a mother of two in Cambridge, just west of Boston, did some last-minute shopping at a grocery store, filling her cart to the brim.
"Honestly, a lot of junk — a lot of quick things you can make just in case lights go out, a lot of snacks to keep the kids busy while they'd be inside during the storm, things to sip with my friends, things for movies," she said. "Just a whole bunch of things to keep us entertained."
In heavily Catholic Boston, the archdiocese urged parishioners to be prudent about attending Sunday Mass and reminded them that, under church law, the obligation "does not apply when there is grave difficulty in fulfilling this obligation."
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, most of it falling overnight Friday into Saturday. 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 experiencing blizzard-like conditions, with blowing, swirling snow and freezing rain. Early snowfall was blamed for a 19-car pileup in Cumberland, Maine, that caused minor injuries. In Rhode Island, 34,000 homes and businesses lost power.
Forecasters said wind gusts up to 75 mph could cause more widespread power outages and whip the snow into fearsome drifts. Flooding was expected along coastal areas still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York and New Jersey the hardest and is considered Jersey's worst natural disaster.
Meteorologist Jeff Masters, of Weather Underground, said the winter storm was a collision of two storms and may end up among the Boston area's Top 5 most intense ever.