NEW YORK – Millions of Americans braced for potentially the worst winter storm of the season with blizzards forecast to dump up to two feet of snow on the East Coast Tuesday, closing schools and spelling travel chaos.
The looming storm forced the postponement of the first Washington meeting between President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel from Tuesday until Friday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer announced.
The National Weather Service issued a 24-hour blizzard warning from midnight Monday (0400 GMT Tuesday) for New York, America’s financial capital and largest city, stretching north into Connecticut and south into New Jersey.
Additional winter storm warnings were posted from southern Maine to Virginia, south of Washington, where the National Park Service warned that the extreme cold could wipe out up to 90 percent of the city’s famed cherry blossoms.
Thousands of flights have been canceled over the next two days, with airports in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia hardest hit, according to the tracking service FlightAware.
Weather advisories spread far inland. In Chicago, where about 2 inches (5 cm) of snow fell Monday, airlines canceled 583 flights at Midway and O’Hare airports, setting up more potential travel havoc.
“This should be a very serious blizzard,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference, announcing that schools would be closed Tuesday, with 16 to 20 inches (41 to 51 cm) of snow expected to fall during the day.
“High end could be as much as 24 inches, which would therefore put this in the category of one of the biggest snowstorms in recent memory,” he added.
New York last year experienced the biggest snowstorm in the city’s history with a record 27.3 inches falling in Central Park in 24 hours. Winter Storm Jonas paralyzed parts of the Northeast and left 18 people dead.
This week’s Winter Storm Stella has formed near the coast, the collision of two low pressure systems expected to dump snow on a wide area home to tens of millions of Americans from the central Appalachian Mountains to New England.
Rapid snowfall and strong winds are expected to wreak havoc during the Tuesday morning commute at the end of an unusually mild winter, when early signs of spring had already been in evidence up and down the East Coast.
The heaviest snow is expected to wallop New York and other coastal areas north of Philadelphia up to New England, National Weather Service meteorologist Melissa Di Spigna told AFP.
“We’re expecting it to be the worst snow of the season,” she said, after previous winter temperatures “well above normal.”
New York is likely to see winds as strong as 40-50 mph (64 to 80 kph) and the city should brace for whiteout conditions on Tuesday morning, with some coastal flooding expected, De Blasio said.
The National Weather Service cautioned that the storm could bring record-low temperatures, as well as “difficult travel and power outages.”
De Blasio repeatedly warned New York’s 8.4 million residents to stay off the roads Tuesday to make way for sanitation crews and emergency responders.
Snow is expected to begin overnight and intensify from 6:00 a.m. to noon on Tuesday, with snow falling as much as two to four inches per hour.
Temperatures on Monday were already icy, with afternoon highs expected to be around 15 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 9 to minus 1 degrees Celsius) below normal from the northern Plains to the Mid-Atlantic region.
Closer to the coast, from southern New Jersey to the Carolinas, rain is expected.
More than 4,000 flights within, into or out of the United States have been cancelled for Tuesday, mostly along the East Coast, according to FlightAware.
New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo said airport authorities had supplies of cots and other essential items to accommodate any stranded passengers.