NEW YORK/MAPLEWOOD, N.J. (Reuters) - A massive, wind-whipped blizzard slammed into the U.S. Northeast on Monday, creating havoc for more than 60 million people and forcing New York City to shut down on a scale not seen since Superstorm Sandy devastated the region in 2012.
The potentially historic storm which could affect 20 percent of the U.S. population, caused several states up and down the east coast to declare emergencies, forced the cancellation of thousands of flights, closed major mass transit hubs and schools.
Officials warned that the storm could dump as much as 3 feet (90 cm) of snow on the region.
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts declared states of emergencies as people were urged to stay home with transit systems, including the New York City subway, suspending services and roadways closed amid white-out conditions.
The potentially historic storm poses the latest challenge to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been under fire in recent weeks from police who criticized his support of public protests about white police violence against black men. In the last major storm de Blasio was vilified for keeping schools open.
The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning from New Jersey to Maine, with conditions worsening overnight and wind gusting to over 50 mph (80 kph) in the New York City area. Coastal flood warnings were issued, with tides in the New York metro area expected to be as much 3 feet higher than normal early Tuesday morning.
Retailers ran short of everything from shovels and snowblowers to basic groceries. At a Shaw’s Supermarket in Somerville, Massachusetts, canned food shelves were thinned and checkout lines long. In Brooklyn, grocery store shelves were stripped of bread and bottled water.
“I’ve been to three or four stores and I can’t get any milk or eggs,” said Marcy Rivers, waiting in the snow for a bus in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “I don’t know what we are going to do now.”
The brutal weather paralyzed the New York City metropolitan area, with an 11 p.m. deadline set for suspending all subway, bus and commuter rail service on Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road.
While New York’s subway system has shut down ahead of major tropical storms, such as 2012’s devastating Superstorm Sandy, transit officials said this was the first time they had canceled service solely due to snow.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a travel ban for all but emergency vehicles on every road in 13 counties in southern New York state, including New York City, suburban Westchester and Long Island, with the threat of a $300 fine for violators.
His peers in Connecticut and Massachusetts imposed similar bans on driving.
“If you are in your car and you are on any road, town, village, city, it doesn’t matter, after 11 o’clock, you will technically be committing a crime,” Cuomo said. “It could be a matter of life and death so caution is required.”
Vacationers and business travelers faced headaches as airlines canceled about 2,700 U.S. flights, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. New York authorities also said “virtually all” flights at LaGuardia Airport on Tuesday will be canceled and cancellations at John F. Kennedy International Airport will be “significant.”
The blizzard knocked out entertainment events including Monday night Broadway performances and home games for the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets and shut New York City’s zoos, where snow leopards, puffins and polar bears frolicked in privacy.
The United Nations headquarters gave itself a day off on Tuesday. East Coast schools, including New York City with the nation’s largest public school system serving 1 million students, and universities, including Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, canceled classes for Tuesday.
“Hallelujah!” said Olivia Fitzsimmons, 8, looking forward to a snow day off from elementary school in Maplewood, New Jersey.
“After the blizzard, I’m going to make a girlfriend for him,” she said standing next to a carrot-nosed snowman in her yard.
Even Wall Street traders rushed home, although exchanges remained open.
As much as 24 inches (60 cm) of snow from the “crippling and potentially historic blizzard” was expected to blanket many areas along the East Coast, the weather service said. High winds raised the potential for power outages caused by tree limbs falling on overhead utility lines.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declared a state of emergency and told all but the most essential government workers to stay home on Tuesday. New Jersey Transit commuter trains will stop running for at least one day, beginning at 10 p.m. on Monday, he said.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy told residents to expect driving bans later on Monday and all of Tuesday. The Boston area transit system will be shut on Tuesday.
“We are anticipating an historic, top-five storm, based on the snowfall,” Baker said.
The biggest snowfall on record in New York City came during the storm of Feb. 11-12, 2006, dropping 26.9 inches (68 cm), according to the city’s Office of Emergency Management.
Reporting by Luc Cohen, Sebastien Malo, Ellen Wulfhorst, Howard Goller and Jonathan Allen in New York, Dan Kelley in Philadelphia, Scott Malone in Boston, Richard Weizel in Milford, Connecticut, Roberta Rampton in New Delhi; Writing by Jonathan Allen and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Jeffrey Benkoe and Bernard Orr