A vast storm system descended on the Northeast on Friday, bringing high winds, deepening snow and threats of flooding to southern New England and reopening the old wounds of Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey and New York.
After a day of pelting wet snow, five states -- New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island -- had declared states of emergency, and Massachusetts had banned vehicles from every road in the state. As dusk fell, conditions quickly deteriorated. Major highways such as Interstate 93, which runs from near Boston to Saint Johnsbury, Vt., were almost completely abandoned; downtown Boston, in blizzard conditions, was a ghost town lost in a swirl of howling winds and snow. Parked cars lost their shape and resembled scoops of ice cream.
The worst was still to come, at least in New England. Forecasters said the storm would continue through this afternoon, and winds could reach 75 miles per hour, leaving behind a fresh white blanket perhaps three feet thick.
In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told people to stay home and warned them not to "panic buy" gasoline because the supply was plentiful. But the memory of Superstorm Sandy in October was still so raw that many across the region went on buying sprees anyway, emptying store shelves and filling extra containers of gasoline in addition to their car tanks.
"I don't think it's going to be as bad as they're saying, but I said that with Sandy, too," said Lavel Samuels, 42, as she filled her tank at a gas station in Queens. "I'm filling up based on my experience with Sandy, in case there's no gas on Sunday or Monday."
That grim mood contrasted sharply with a more playful sense among some in New England, where the prospect of new snow thrilled skiers who have bemoaned almost two seasons of barren slopes.
"These aren't flakes falling from the sky; these are dollar bills," said Ed Carrier as he sat in a coffee shop in Portsmouth, N.H., and envisioned the boon for winter sports.
Staff members at the Thirsty Moose Taphouse nearby said they were determined to stay open through the storm until their regular closing time at 1 a.m. (except in the case of a power failure), and even offered storm-related drink specials: $3 porters and stouts, as long as it was snowing. "It's just a little bit of snow," said the hostess, Kim Lovely. "Mother Nature's just brushing out her dandruff."
But in most cities and towns, Friday was largely a day of preparing for the worst. With hurricane-force winds, the National Weather Service expects flooding along the Atlantic Coast that could affect as many as 8 million people.
Already by evening, thousands of power failures had been reported across Massachusetts, and utility officials -- beleaguered after poor performances in previous storms -- were girding for more extensive disruptions in service: Predicted winds as high as 75 mph would probably topple trees and take down more power lines, officials said. Marcy Reed, president of National Grid, said outages could last several days because repairs would not begin until the storm ended and would require unearthing power lines buried under mounds of snow.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick took the unusual step of ordering all vehicles off all roads, not just state roads, by 4 p.m. Friday, well before the brunt of the storm had hit. Violators could face as much as a year in prison and a fine, though exceptions were made for emergency workers, news media members and anyone with a snowplow.
"Two or three feet of snow is a profoundly different kind of storm than we have dealt with," the governor said from the state's emergency bunker in Framingham. Officials recalled only one previous such traffic ban, in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1978, when more than 27 inches of snow paralyzed the region, forcing people to abandon their cars in the middle of roadways.
Maine declared a partial emergency, allowing it to suspend federal transportation rules, extend worker hours and bring in extra crews from Canada to assist with storm damage repair.
Thousands of flights were grounded Friday, and thousands more were expected to be suspended through the weekend.
Boston's transit system -- including subway, buses and commuter rail lines -- suspended service at 3:30, allowing first-shift workers to get home and second-shift workers to get to work. The city inaugurated its SnowOps Viewer, an online portal that allows viewers to see where all snowplows are in real time.
In New York City, transit officials announced increased bus and train service in the afternoon to help commuters beat the worst of the storm. But New Jersey Transit suspended most of its commuter train and bus service by 8 p.m. Amtrak suspended northbound service out of New York early Friday afternoon and southbound service out of Boston. Schools throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were shut or sent students home early.
New York City was battered by a sloshy mix of rain, snow and sleet that slowly changed over to snow.
"From then, things go downhill pretty quickly," said National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Morrin, based on Long Island, adding that the winds were picking up and snow would fall more heavily through the night.
By today, the total snowfall in New York City was expected to be between 10 and 14 inches. On Long Island, the snow totals will range from 14 to 18 inches, with the highest amounts at the east end.
In New London, Conn., forecasters said there would most likely be more than 24 inches of snow and even more in Boston, which could break modern records by topping 28 inches.