(CNN) — LATEST DEVELOPMENTS:
• Atlanta Public Schools are letting students out early Friday because of the bad weather, joining a host of other school systems around North Georgia.
• All flights to and from Philadelphia International Airport will be canceled Saturday, airport spokeswoman Diane Gerace said. The flight-tracking website Flightaware reports that more than 5,000 U.S. flights have been called off Friday and Saturday.
• The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., will close at noon because of the blizzard bearing down on that city.
Welcome to winter, East Coast.
After a fairly tame season so far — especially compared to the last one — a monster storm loomed Friday over the Carolinas north to New England, spurring people to hunker down with their shovels, coffee and ideally firewood, given fears that powerful wind and heavy snow and ice could knock out power. Roughly a quarter of the U.S. population is in its path, about 30 million of whom are under blizzard watches or warnings.
North Carolina began getting hit hard early Friday, with snow covering the ground in cities like Asheville, Charlotte and Greensboro just in time for the morning commute. The National Weather Service said the state’s Research Triangle — which includes Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — was already being buried under snow and sleet Friday morning, with sleet and freezing rain expected in the afternoon.
That will mean many headaches, accidents and other troubles for folks there. But the wallop this storm is expected to deliver as it moves north is worse.
More than any other place, Washington, D.C., is in the bull’s-eye. Snow should start falling there late Friday afternoon, with 10 to 14 inches possible by day’s end. The forecast calls for another 9 to 13 inches before the precipitation wraps up sometime after midnight. And throughout, the snow will be accompanied by sustained winds of up to 30 mph and gusts of 10 or more mph stronger than that.
The nation’s capital, though, is not alone in expecting blizzard conditions. On Friday morning, the National Weather Service extended its blizzard warning to include Philadelphia and New York City. That’s upwards of 10 million in just those three cities, not to mention millions more in parts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey under the same advisory.
“Stay off the roads for your own safety. … Get ready, get your supplies today,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday morning. “(Then) stay indoors, stay safe.”
Southeast also affected by system
The massive storm already has dumped an icy blotch of freezing rain, sleet or snow from Oklahoma through Tennessee. And while the focus is on points north, it will probably cause lots of trouble in the South as well.
That includes severe thunderstorms expected in Florida, the potential for tornadoes around the South, and even a winter storm warning Friday afternoon into Saturday night for parts of North Georgia. The beginning of what could be seven inches of snow in Nashville, Tennessee, started falling early Friday, while 1 or 2 feet could pile up in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“There’s more to this storm than just the snow and ice that we’re predicting,” said CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam.
This has led airlines to cancel more than 5,000 flights Friday and Saturday, trying to get ahead of the storm. And at thousands of schools in the Southeast on Friday, there were no classes or students headed home early, just in time for the weekend.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said the mix of snow, sleet and freezing rain is his state’s biggest concern, especially if roads end up coated with black ice.
“As long as that happens,” the governor said of a changing wintry mix, “no matter what we put on the roads, it might not work.”
McCrory said the bad weather already has caused at least three deaths. It has also canceled hundreds of events, including a rally for the Carolina Panthers ahead of their NFC professional football championship in Charlotte. Some fans from Arizona, the home of the Panthers’ foe, took flights out early to make Sunday’s title contest. AZ Central reported.
But the governor predicted a good outcome for his home team. “I don’t anticipate anything stopping the Carolina Panthers from getting to the Super Bowl,” McCrory said.
‘Hardest snowstorm’ in memory in Virginia
As the winter storm moves north, snow becomes more and more of a concern.
In Virginia, state government offices and schools shut down ahead of the storm. Gov. Terry McAuliffe told CNN on Friday morning that some 25,000 personnel with 13,000 pieces of equipment, 650,000 tons of salt and 2 million gallons of liquid salt are positioned strategically around the state.
“I’m very concerned about Northern Virginia,” said McAuliffe, who indicated he could shut down Interstate 81, which runs through the middle of the state. “We’re looking at anywhere from 1 to 3 feet of snow.”
The governor also expressed concerns about people in rural areas and the elderly, saying helping them will be part of the mission for the 500 National Guard members he’s activated for the storm.
From her home just outside of Lynchburg, Tracy Batwinas said the storm, coming after what’s been a mild winter, has jostled many people. Her husband had to circle many times to get a parking spot outside a local Kroger grocery store, and once he got inside, he found that staples like eggs, bread, milk and more had been cleared off the shelves.
By 9 a.m., snow was coming down fast — “the hardest snowstorm that I can remember ever seeing,” said Batwinas, 53, who was born and raised in Virginia. Still, while many are worried, she’s looking forward to “a play date” with her husband of four years and their two golden retrievers.
The good news — besides whatever fun those not in harm’s way can have on a snow day — is that things should get better soon.
“Next week, it’s going to be in the high 40s,” McAuliffe told CNN’s “New Day.” “… We can get back to normalcy very quickly. … But please don’t get out on the roads (now) if you don’t have to.”
D.C. official: ‘Predictions going off the map’
That’s the line of the day from authorities: Stay off the roads, stay home, stay safe.
It’s particularly salient in cities like Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and even New York, which should get a double whammy of driving snow and powerful winds.
Because of this, federal agencies closed Friday. United Airlines suspended flights at its Washington Dulles International Airport hub and other Mid-Atlantic airports starting Friday afternoon, and Philadelphia International Airport called off all flights for Saturday. Amtrak also announced a modified schedule in the Northeast because of the storm, and Washington said its Metrorail system would close all day Saturday and Sunday.
“This is not a storm that anyone should take lightly, and I would urge all residents to plan to get to a safe place before the storm arrives Friday afternoon,” said Metro CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld.
With the weight of so much snow and ice falling at once over the weekend, “we’re concerned that we will perhaps get some collapsed roofs,” Washington, D.C., emergency management spokesman Chris Geldart told CNN.
Washington could break its all-time snow record. Twenty-eight inches fell in the “Knickerbocker Storm” of 1922, named after a theater that collapsed under the weight of snow, killing 100 people.
Said Geldart, “There are predictions going off the map for it.”
CNN’s Ed Payne, Dave Hennen, Tina Burnside, Jason Hanna and Phil Gast contributed to this report.