WASHINGTON >> Shoppers raided grocery and hardware stores, bishops excused Catholics from Sunday Mass and the nation's capital was shutting down Friday as a weekend blizzard began blanketing much of the Eastern United States. The first flakes of what could become two feet or more of wet, driving snow fell in Washington just after 1 p.m.
The feared snowstorm sloshed in from the Ohio Valley looking just like the forecasts promised, said Daniel Petersen, a forecaster at the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
Conditions quickly became treacherous wherever the heavy flakes fell. Arkansas and Tennessee got eight inches, and states across the Deep South grappled with icy, snow-covered roads and power outages. At least eight people died in traffic fatalities in the dangerous weather.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser asked residents to "hunker down" and "shelter in place" through Sunday.
"The forecast does not show any evidence of lightening up," she said, stressing the "life and death implications."
The good news? Meteorologists appear to have gotten this storm right. Their predictions converged, and millions of people got clear warnings, well in advance. Those blizzard warnings and watches stretch through New York City into New England, stopping just short of Boston, but Washington could get one of its top three storms in history, Peterson said.
As food and supplies vanished from store shelves, at least five states and the District of Columbia declared states of emergency. Schools, government offices and transit systems announced early closings throughout the region. Thousands of flights were canceled, colleges called off games, and bands postponed concerts.
As far south as Atlanta, people were urged to go home and stay there to avoid a repeat of the city's "icepocalypse," when a fairly light winter storm in 2014 caused commuter chaos for days.
All the ingredients have come together for a massive snowfall and gale-force winds, causing white-out conditions and dangerous flooding. The winds initially picked up warm water from the Gulf of Mexico; now the storm is taking much more moisture from the warmer-than-usual Gulf Stream, and swirling slowly over Virginia and Maryland.
Snowfall will likely continue for about a day and half in the Washington-Baltimore area, leaving accumulations of two feet or more wherever high winds don't blow. Philadelphia could get 12 to 18 inches and New York 8 to 10, although some forecasts suggest even more, Peterson said.
The snowfall could easily cause more than $1 billion in damage, weather service director Louis Uccellini said. Fortunately, temperatures will be just above freezing after the storm passes in most places, and there's no second storm lurking behind this one, making for a slow and steady melt and less likelihood of more floods, Peterson said.
Coastal flooding was the worry in New Jersey. Republican Gov. Chris Christie canceled presidential campaign events Friday and Saturday to return home from New Hampshire, which should be spared from the storm.
In Washington, the federal government closed its offices at noon Friday, all mass transit was shutting down through Sunday, and many people stayed home. President Barack Obama was hunkering down at the White House, his spokesman said.
As the snow began falling in Arlington, Virginia, the parking lot at a Safeway supermarket looked like the mall at Christmas, with drivers lining up to snag parking spaces.
In downtown Baltimore, social worker Sean Augustus raced home, stocked with flashlights and water.
"I think it's going to be a bad storm," but Baltimore tends to come together when disasters strike.
"This is when you'll see Baltimore city in a different light," Augustus said. "You'll see neighbors coming together to help each other. That's the side of Baltimore people rarely see."
As the storm moved northeastward Friday, people woke to snow and ice, and then got stuck on dangerous roads.
A jack-knifed tractor-trailer and many other accidents caused "pure gridlock" that shut down the interstates around Nashville, Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Miller said. Snow plows and salt trucks can't keep up with the weather, he said.
In the mountains of Craigsville, West Virginia, people bought the usual kerosene heaters, propane tanks and gas cans, but also a special item: a rake that helps homeowners get snow off their roofs.
"It's going to be bad, probably," said Missy Keaton, cashier and office secretary at the town's hardware store, called Hardware, That's Us. Many people are prepared after snow from Superstorm Sandy collapsed roofs in 2012.
All major airlines have issued waivers for the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. More than 2,400 flights were canceled in the U.S. Friday, and another 2,400 Saturday, according to the flight tracking service FlightAware. The bulk of Friday's cancellations were in Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina; Saturday's cancelations center on Philadelphia, Washington, and — to a lesser extent — New York. By Sunday afternoon, airlines hope to be back to full schedule to handle business travelers heading out for the week.
"For our region, this is good timing," said Jeffrey Knueppel, general manager of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which is suspending almost all service around Philadelphia Saturday. "Saturday is the day to stay home and Sunday will give us a chance to really clean things up."
In Washington, Baltimore, and Delaware, archdioceses reminded people that dangerous travel conditions are a legitimate excuse to avoid showing up for Sunday Mass, and watch a ceremony on television instead.
Train service could be disrupted by frozen switches, the loss of third-rail electric power or trees falling on wires. About 1,000 track workers will be deployed to keep New York's subway system moving, and 79 trains will have "scraper shoes" to reduce icing on rails, the Metropolitan Transit Authority said.
At least one industry could benefit from all this: Eastern ski resorts, which got a late start this season because of December's record highs. "There is never too much snow on the slopes," said Joe Stevens, spokesman for the West Virginia Ski Areas Association.