NEW YORK (Reuters) - A snowstorm gaining strength throughout the day on Wednesday snarled commuter traffic, canceled flights and sent workers and schoolchildren home early throughout the Northeast, with even worse weather predicted at nightfall.
“It’s a very chaotic scene, kind of like a one-two punch,” said meteorologist Elliot Abrams of AccuWeather.com.
Winter storm warnings remained in effect in regions surrounding Washington, D.C.; Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia, New York, Hartford, Providence and Boston, the National Weather Service said.
The storm, which stretched from northern Alabama and Tennessee northeast to Massachusetts, dumped up to 6 inches of snow by midday.
As the first part of the storm moved up the Eastern Seaboard, a second, more powerful front began moving north and was expected to hit Philadelphia by early evening, forecasters said.
“People in the northeast Philadelphia suburbs are saying this was the worst morning commute they have ever seen,” said meteorologist Evan Myers in a video report posted on AccuWeather.com, noting icy roads sent cars spinning out of control.
Schools in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and many parts of Maryland and Virginia were either shut, opened late or closed early on Wednesday.
Federal employees in Washington reported to work but were told to go home two hours early to beat the onslaught of snow expected to amount to between 4 and 6 inches.
Just ahead of the evening commute, the Weather Channel reported thundersnow, which is heavy snow accompanied by thunder, at Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C.
Flight delays were reported at airports in Philadelphia, Newark and New York.
New York City declared a weather emergency for the evening rush hour and Thursday’s morning rush hour as well, urging residents to avoid unnecessary driving.
Boston declared a snow emergency in effect at 7 p.m., hoping to give crews ample time to clear and treat roads ahead of Thursday’s morning commute. To get a jump on the challenge, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation deployed more than 1,000 pieces of equipment on Wednesday afternoon to pre-treat roads throughout the state.
Pennsylvania officials imposed a 45 mph speed limit on 322 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, covering most of the road system, because of low visibility for drivers.
Buses and regional rail services were running with delays, said Richard Maloney of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
“The worst is apparently yet to come,” Maloney said.
Back-to-back storms this winter have tapped out road maintenance budgets in Northeast towns including Springfield, Massachusetts, which has already spent its entire $1.7 million snow removal budget for plowing, salting and sanding its streets.
Snow plow crews were on the job, however, after the city council this week approved deficit spending to keep up with additional storms, said John Rooney, deputy director of operations and maintenance for Springfield’s public works department.
Although many people dread more snow, ski area operators and outdoor enthusiasts are gleefully crying, “Bring It!” Mountain Creek in Vernon, New Jersey, boasted the best ski conditions in recent memory.
And, the Washington DC Snowball Fight Association is calling for a replay tonight of last February’s flash mob snowball fight in Dupont Circle, which drew 2,000 people.
While Baltimore and Philadelphia areas can expect to see the heaviest periods of snowfall during the evening commute, Boston, Providence and New York City will be walloped later in the evening and overnight, forecasted Weather Channel meteorologist Jonathan Erdman.
By the time the storm tapers off overnight, Philadelphia was expected to get 4 to 8 inches of snow, while 6 to 9 inches was expected in New York City. Boston and Hartford were expected to get 6 to 12 inches.
The Midwest should brace for more sub-zero temperatures this weekend and next week, as should the Northeast, forecasters said.
Additional reporting by Lauren Keiper; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton