A band of frigid weather snaking its way up the East Coast Sunday threatened to bring blizzards and a foot of snow to New York City and New England, while several states to the South made emergency declarations as the storm caused crashes on slick roads.
Airlines grounded hundreds of flights Sunday along the Northeast corridor in anticipation of the storm, affecting major airports including New York's JFK and Newark. Airlines said more cancellations were likely as the storm progressed. Travel misery began a day earlier in parts of the South, where a rare white Christmas came with reports of dozens of car crashes.
In Washington transportation officials pre-treated roads and readied 200 salt trucks, plows and other pieces of equipment to fight the 6 inches or more expected to fall in the Mid-Atlantic region.
The Northeast is expected to get the brunt of the storm. Forecasters issued a blizzard warning for New York City for Sunday and Monday, with a forecast of 11 to 16 inches of snow and strong winds that will reduce visibility to near zero at times. A blizzard warning was also in effect for Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts including Boston, with forecasters predicting 15 to 20 inches of snow from noon Sunday to 6 p.m. A blizzard warning is issued when snow is accompanied by sustained winds or gusts over 35 mph.
As much as 18 inches could fall on the New Jersey shore with wind gusts over 40 mph. A blizzard warning was also in effect for Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts including Boston, with forecasters predicting 15 to 20 inches of snow from noon Sunday to 6 p.m. Monday.
Baltimore and Washington were expected to get 6 inches or more of snow, with surrounding areas forecast to have as many as 9, the weather service said.
By early Sunday, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina declared states of emergency.
"Winds with gusts up to 45 miles per hour will cause blowing snow and that's going to cause the worst of it," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told The Weather Channel Saturday night. "We're urging extreme caution in travel. Try to get home early and if you don't have to travel don't go."
Continental Airlines canceled 250 Sunday departures from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York City. United Airlines canceled dozens of Sunday departures from Newark, Philadelphia, New York's LaGuardia and JFK, Boston and other airports. AirTran and Southwest Airlines also canceled flights, mostly in or out of Washington Dulles, Baltimore and Newark. American Airlines said it anticipated canceling flights, but hadn't yet done so early Sunday.
Most carriers were waiving fees for one-time changes in affected areas and urging passengers to make changes through their websites.
The monster storm is the result of a low pressure system that will intensify off the North Carolina coast on Sunday morning and strengthen into a major storm as it moves northeast, according to the National Weather Service.
Delaware and Philadelphia braced for up to a foot of snow predicted to fall from Sunday into Monday and authorities urged people to avoid traveling if possible.
Early Sunday, winter storm warnings stretched from Georgia to New England.
The system gave the Carolinas their first white Christmas in decades. Columbia, S.C., had its first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol said late Saturday that most of the roads in and around Asheville were either covered or partially covered with snow and ice. Emergency management spokeswoman Julia Jarema said troopers in the two dozen westernmost counties answered 350 calls in 18 hours Saturday. Most were wrecks.
Lance Cpl. Bill Rhyne, a spokesman for the South Carolina Highway Patrol, said late Saturday that snow was starting to cover roads but that there were fewer accidents than there would be on a normal night.
"Everybody's at home," he said. "It's Christmas. They're heeding the warnings and staying off the roads."
Still, transportation officials in the state had deployed more than 200 plows, salt trucks and other equipment.
In Nashville, some travelers who expected a smooth trip on Christmas got a rude surprise.
"We were hoping this was going to be a good day to travel," said Heather Bansmer, 36, of Bellingham, Wash.
She and her husband, Shawn Breeding, 40, had planned to return home on separate flights after a visit to Breeding's family in Bowling Green, Ky. But Breeding's flight through Atlanta got canceled.
The couple was expecting to spend much of Christmas Day in separate airports.
"A white Christmas is not so welcome," Breeding said, as the couple stood in the lobby of the Nashville airport with their luggage in a cart.
In Pensacola, Fla., Jena Passut faced a quandary. The 36-year-old magazine writer drove with her husband and two kids from Fairfax, Va., to visit relatives. On Saturday afternoon she worried about how to get back home amid the snow.
"Should we leave on Christmas night? My kids are normally good travelers, but if it's going to take us twice as long, it's going to be hell," she said. "I like a white Christmas as much as anyone, but I don't want to drive in it."