By Ben Brumfield
(CNN) — A potentially historic winter storm closed in on New England on Friday, with tens of millions of people in its path and already a trail of thousands of canceled flights.
The latest forecast suggests that the worst of the weather could hit Boston, from about 5 p.m. Friday until Saturday morning, and bring in around 2 feet of snow.
Light to moderate accumulations will continue through Saturday evening, forecasters predicted.
In New York, the heaviest snowfall is expected to start falling at 7 p.m. Friday, with accumulations of up to about a foot.
High winds could also stir up trouble at sea and push flood waters up and over New England coastlines.
“It’s going to be one of the strongest winter storms we’ve seen in a very long time,” CNN meteorologist Pedram Javaheri said.
But by early next week, much of the Northeast will re-emerge from the white blanket, as temperatures in many places are expected to rise above 40 degrees.
The gathering snowstorm is driving droves of New Englanders into shops to gather supplies and brace for possible record-breaking weather.
When Reading, Massachusetts, resident Elizabeth Frazier stocked up on supplies late Thursday, shoppers were buying up the store. She grabbed the last bottles of water in sight.
“It’s a zoo in there,” she said. “There’s nothing left on the shelves,” she told CNN affiliate WHDH.
Motorists lined up to fill their tanks at gas stations in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. And in Maine, a 19-car pileup outside of Portland temporarily closed roadways Friday morning, though all injuries were considered minor.
Who is in its path
The storm is on a trajectory reminiscent of the path that Superstorm Sandy took but will also include areas farther north.
It is poised to deliver harsh blows to regions that already took a lot of punishment in the fall.
The blizzard is predicted to smother some places where the superstorm left behind the deepest scars — from the New Jersey shoreline through the boroughs of New York City and throughout Connecticut.
Forecasts call for the worst snowfall to extend into eastern Massachusetts and reach up the Northeast shoreline into Maine.
Power companies and public works are shoring up their resources, and some states have closed public schools. The National Weather Service has predicted widespread white-out conditions that will impede drivers’ visibility.
Airlines have already canceled more than 3,500 flights to and from the affected region, and Amtrak has canceled many trips in the Northeast corridor. Some states are warning motorists not to drive once the storm hits.
Passengers filed into New York’s La Guardia Airport on Friday before dawn to flee the coming mayhem. Many rescheduled their flights to leave before its arrival.
James Rubino was originally booked on a flight to Miami on Friday evening to see family, but the airline canceled the trip. After hours of calling the airline, he was able to get on a much earlier flight.
“I got up at 3:02 a.m. and just ran, got my son, and we were out the door,” Rubino said. He plunked down $200 for a cab to the airport to make the new flight on time.
The Great Blizzard of 1978 in Boston
Boston’s public works filled trucks with sand Thursday to spread on roads, and deployed snowplows and 600 snow removers.
“We are hardy New Englanders,” said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, “and used to these types of storms.”
But the city could see flakes falling at a rate of 2 to 3 inches per hour, and the storm has already drawn comparisons to the Great Blizzard of 1978, when thousands were stranded as fast-moving snowdrifts blanketed highways and left several people dead.
Putting toughness aside, Menino told Bostonians to “use common sense” and “stay off the streets of our city.” “Basically, stay home.”
“All vehicles must be off the roads by noon on Friday,” Massachusetts’ emergency management agency said. “Boston’s public rail system will halt service at 3:30 p.m.”
This storm is predicted to dump about 29 inches on Boston in one day. The Great Blizzard dumped 27 inches on its worst day, but it hovered over the area longer than this storm is expected to.
In addition, “the winds are going to be howling,” meteorologist Javaheri said. The snow won’t fall down but blow in sideways, causing particularly high drifts.
Snow will be widespread and deep
The rest of New England will see heavy snow into Saturday, the National Weather Service said, which could reach blizzard intensity in places. A wet system rising from the Gulf Coast is colliding with a polar front rolling in from the Midwest to produce the whopping winter storm.
Residents from New Jersey to Maine probably will be digging themselves out of a foot or so of snow, the National Weather Service predicts, with more than 2½ feet falling in some spots.
Snowfalls could last as long as 36 hours in some areas, breaking local accumulation records. The weather service expects the storm to fling heavy snow across the Great Lakes as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the timing of the storm could be worse for municipal workers.
“If it’s going to happen, having it happen Friday overnight into Saturday is probably as good timing as we could have,” he said. “The sanitation department then has the advantage of being able to clean the streets when there’s normally less traffic.”
High winds will whip up waves along the Atlantic Coast, triggering small-craft advisories as far south as Georgia, the National Weather Service said. Hurricane-force winds are predicted to churn up offshore maritime tempests — particularly from New Jersey to Massachusetts — with waves cresting at up to 30 feet at the height of the storm.
Coastal flooding is possible “from Boston northward,” the weather service said. But on Long Island, power companies are also warning that the Atlantic’s waters could come ashore there, too.
The combination of snow and gusts as high as 60 to 75 mph will also knock out electric power, the National Weather Service said.
After Superstorm Sandy left much of Long Island without power for days, power company National Grid is working to prevent a second act to that tragedy. It is adding hundreds of extra crew members to more than 500 linemen already on site for the Long Island Power Authority.
The storm could cut power to more than 100,000 customers on Long Island alone, National Grid said.