BOSTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) - A blizzard slammed into the northeastern United States on Friday, snarling traffic, disrupting thousands of flights and prompting five governors to declare states of emergency in the face of a fearsome snowstorm.
The storm caused a massive traffic pile-up in southern Maine. Organizers of the U.S. sledding championship in that state postponed a race scheduled for Saturday, fearing too much snow for the competition.
The blizzard left about 10,000 along the East Coast without power. Almost 3,500 flights were canceled and officials in Massachusetts and Connecticut closed roads.
Forecasters warned about 2 feet of snow would blanket most of the Boston area with some spots getting as much as 30 inches. The city's record snowfall, 27.6 inches, came in 2003.
"We're seeing heavier snow overspread the region from south to north," said Lance Franck, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts, outside Boston. "As the snow picks up in intensity, we're expecting it to fall at a rate of upwards of two to three inches per hour."
Early Friday evening, officials warned that the storm was just ramping up to full strength, and that heavy snow and high winds would continue through midday on Saturday. The governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Maine declared states of emergency and issued bans on driving by early Friday afternoon.
Authorities ordered nonessential government workers to stay home, urged private employers to do the same, told people to prepare for power outages and encouraged them to check on elderly or disabled neighbors.
People appeared to take the warnings seriously. Traffic on streets and public transportation services was significantly lighter than usual on Friday.
"This is a very large and powerful storm, however we are encouraged by the numbers of people who stayed home today," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino told reporters.
Even so, the storm caused a few accidents, including a 19-vehicle pile-up outside Portland, Maine, that sent one person to the hospital.
Winds were blowing at 35 to 40 miles per hour by Friday afternoon and forecasters expected gusts up to 60 miles per hour as the evening wore on.
As he waited for one of the last subways that ran through the Boston area, musician John Hinson, who was visiting from Durham, North Carolina, said he had never seen a storm of the magnitude Friday's blizzard was expected to reach.
"I've been through some snow, a couple feet, but not anything like they're predicting, which is kind of exciting," he said.
LOOKING FOR SASQUATCH
The storm wasn't bad news for everyone.
When told an estimated 8 to 10 inches were predicted overnight at Elk Mountain in Uniondale, Pennsylvania, pint-sized skier Sophia Chesner's eye grew wide.
"Whoa!" said the 8-year old, of Moorestown, New Jersey, who was on a ski vacation with her family. Her sister, Giuliana, 4, said no matter how good the skiing is, she has other outer priorities once the snow piles up.
"First thing I'm going to do is build a snowman and look for a Sasquatch footprint," Guiliana Chesner said.
Life was not as rosy for those who planned to fly. Almost 3,500 flights were canceled on Friday, with more than 1,200 planned cancellations for Saturday, according to the website FlightAware.com.
The storm also posed a risk of flooding at high tide to areas still recovering from superstorm Sandy last fall.
"Many of the same communities that were inundated by Hurricane Sandy's tidal surge just about 100 days ago are likely to see some moderate coastal flooding this evening," said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
About one foot of snow was forecast to land on New York City.
Brick Township in New Jersey had crews out building up sand dunes and berms ahead of a forecast storm surge, said Mayor Stephen Acropolis.
Travel became more difficult as the day progressed. Massachusetts started closing its public transportation system at 3:30 p.m. (2030 GMT) and ordered most drivers off roads by 4 p.m. (5.00 p.m. GMT) Connecticut also closed its roads.
The Amtrak railroad suspended service between New York, Boston and points north on Friday afternoon.
Organizers of the country's championship sledding race, which had been scheduled to get underway in Camden, Maine, on Saturday, postponed the event by one day. Some 400 teams were registered for the race, which features costumed sledders on a 400-foot (121 meter) chute.
"As soon as the weather clears on Saturday and it is safe, the toboggan committee will be out at Tobagganville cleaning up the chute as quickly as they can," said Holly Edwards, chairman of the U.S. National Toboggan Championships.
"It needs to be shoveled out by hand."
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in Uniondale, Pennsylvania, Daniel Lovering in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jason McLure in Littleton, New Hampshire, David Sheppard, Robert Gibbons and Scott DiSavino in New York and Dave Warner in Philadelphia; Editing by Paul Thomasch and David Gregorio)