(Reuters) - A blizzard blew into the northeastern United States on Friday, cutting short the workweek for millions who feared being stranded as state officials ordered roads closed ahead of what forecasters said could be record-setting snowfall.
Authorities scrambled to prepare for the storm, which had already resulted in a massive traffic pile-up in southern Maine and prompted organizers of the nation's sledding championship in Maine to postpone a race scheduled for Saturday, fearing too much snow for the competition.
From New York to Maine, the storm began gently, dropping a light dusting of snow, but officials urged residents to stay home, rather than risk getting stuck in deep drifts when the storm kicks up later Friday afternoon.
Even in its early stages, the storm created some panic. Drivers lined up at gas stations to top off their tanks, grocery stores were swamped as shoppers stocked up on bread and milk, and travelers were forced to confront flight delays and cancellations.
With the worst of the storm yet to come, the governors of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut declared states of emergency and issued bans on driving by early Friday afternoon.
"The rate of snowfall and reduced visibility during the evening rush hour in particular will make safe travel nearly impossible," Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told reporters.
The early edge of the storm led to a 19-vehicle pile-up in southern Maine, snarling traffic on a major interstate highway north of Portland. No major injuries were reported. A smaller accident briefly closed an interstate near Bolton, Vermont.
"It was close to whiteout conditions, it's sort of a precursor of what's coming later," said Stephen McCausland, a spokesman for the Maine State Police.
Officials across the region closed schools and more than 3,000 flights were canceled. Several thousand customers lost power in New Jersey and points south, though officials warned the number was likely to rise as the snowfall got heavier and winds picked up.
Governors and mayors 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.
The light snow falling across much of New England on Friday morning was a taste of the weather to come, said Jerry Paul, senior meteorologist with Weather Insight, a unit of Thomson Reuters.
"That's going to be gradually building today as time goes on," Paul said.
A wide swath of New England, including northeastern Connecticut, Providence, Rhode Island, and the Boston area, will likely see 24 inches to 30 inches of snow, with some areas seeing more than three feet (one meter) by the time the storm ends on Saturday morning, Paul added.
At the storm's peak, winds could gust up to 65 miles per hour (105 kilometers per hour), he said.
Boston's record snowfall, 27.6 inches, came in 2003.
CHEERING ON STORM
Organizers of the country's championship sledding race, that had been scheduled to get underway in Camden, Maine, on Saturday, postponed the event by one day.
"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."
Some 400 teams were registered for the race, which features costumed sledders on a 400-foot (121 meter) chute.
After two years of very little snow across the region, people whose livelihoods depend on skiers and snowmobilers cheered on the storm.
"It affects restaurants, lodgings, everything if those people aren't up here to play," said Scott Senecal, manager of the VIP Discount Auto Center in Littleton, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains. "All those people that come up here they're going to have flat tires, batteries that die ... Cold weather causes people to have to spend money whether they wanted to or not."
In New York City, still not fully recovered from the effects of October's devastating Hurricane Sandy, officials said they had 1,800 Sanitation Department trucks equipped with snow plows ready to be deployed.
Motorists, mindful of the severe fuel disruptions after Sandy, rushed to buy gasoline, leading to shortages in New York City. A Reuters photographer reported at least three service stations had run out of gas in the borough of Queens on Friday morning, with long lines formed at others.
Sandy knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of homes, taking gasoline stations out of service, and damaged port facilities, exacerbating the shortages by preventing operable stations from refueling.
"We've seen some lines at stations in the southern part of the state, ahead of the storm, which may actually help prevent problems after the storm," said Ralph Bombardiere, executive director of the New York State Association of Service Stations and Repair Shops. "I'm not expecting anything like the vast power outages and problems we had with Sandy."
Travel will become more difficult through the day, with Massachusetts planning to close its public transportation system at 3:30 p.m. and ordering most drivers off roads by 4 p.m. Connecticut started closing roads at noon.
The Amtrak railroad service warned it would suspend service between New York, Boston and points north on Friday afternoon.
Life was not any easier for those who planned to fly. More than 3,000 flights were canceled on Friday, with close to 1,000 planned cancellations for Saturday, according to the website FlightAware.com. The hardest-hit airports were in the New York City area, Boston and Toronto.
Major Boston financial companies, including State Street Corp and Fidelity Investments, said many employees worked from home on Friday rather than risk traveling.
(Additional reporting by Jason McClure in Littleton, New Hampshire, David Sheppard and Scott DiSavino in New York and Dave Warner in Philadelphia; Editing by Paul Thomasch)