WASHINGTON — Nearly half the United States was caught in an icy blast on Monday, with much of the East Coast bracing for what could be the worst winter storm of the year.
Spring may be around the corner after an unusually warm winter throughout much of the region, but a powerful nor’easter called Winter Storm Stella is forming near the coast as two low pressure systems collide, burying a wide area from the central Appalachians to New England under up to 18 inches of snow.
The National Weather Service cautioned that the storm could bring record-low temperatures late Monday into Tuesday, as well as “blizzard conditions in places, difficult travel and power outages.” A blizzard warning was issued for New York, with whiteout conditions expected to make travel “extremely dangerous,” according to the weather service. Winter storm warnings were issued for areas from Washington to southern Maine. Wind gusts of up to 60 miles (97 kilometers) per hour are expected.
“Significant amounts of snow are forecast that will make travel dangerous. Only travel in an emergency. If you must travel, keep an extra flashlight, food and water in your vehicle in case of an emergency,” the weather service said.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled ahead of the storm, according to the tracking service FlightAware.
Southwest Airlines warned of cancellations, delays and diversions for Sunday through Wednesday. Delta Air Lines told travelers they could book alternative flights without fees.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced preparations for the so-called Nor’easter storm, activating the state Emergency Operations Center as of Monday night while also directing state agencies to be on heightened alert.
“I encourage all New Yorkers in affected regions to plan ahead and avoid any unnecessary travel as the storm progresses,” Cuomo said in a statement, adding that commuters should expect road closures, delays and cancellations.
The storm also raised the potential for power outages with damaging winds across eastern Long Island and southeastern Connecticut, the National Weather Service said.
New York City issued a snow alert for Monday night into Tuesday, expecting snowfall rates of up to 2 to 4 inches per hour Tuesday morning and afternoon, with gusts of up to 50 mph.
Mayor Bill de Blasio warned New Yorkers that “besides the snow, it will be cold,” while officials recommended that people avoid driving and use mass transit when possible.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was installing hundreds of pieces of snow equipment at the three New York area airports. Thousands of tons of salt and sand were prepared for airport roads, parking lots, bridges and tunnels.
As some 50 million people along the Eastern Seaboard came under storm or blizzard watches, Washington, D.C., which often bogs down with even low levels of snow, was expecting 5 inches (13 cm) and twice that in outlying areas.
The storm comes near the end of an unusually mild winter along much of the East Coast, with below-normal snowfalls in some areas, including New York City and Washington. It was the warmest February on record in nearly the entire area, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center.
Last week in New York, temperatures hovered near 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), according to Accuweather.com, hitting 60 or higher on six days in February.
Meanwhile, in the western United States, the weather service forecast potentially record-setting heat in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, where temperatures were expected into the 90s (above 32 degrees Celsius) in some places.