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East Coast braces, flights canceled as 'historic' blizzard looms

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A snow shoveler crosses a street during a winter snowstorm in Cambridge

Light snow began falling on the East Coast on Monday morning, the first signs of a potentially historic blizzard that officials predicted would dump up to 3 feet in the coming day, snarling transportation for millions of people.

The National Weather Service (NWS) issued a blizzard warning for New York City and surrounding areas between coastal New Jersey and Connecticut, beginning 1 p.m. EST on Monday and worsening overnight into Tuesday morning. It warned of two days of winter storms across the East Coast, from Pennsylvania to Maine.

Travel will be extremely dangerous, the service said, as strong, snow-filled winds reduce visibility to near zero.

Airlines have canceled more than 2,300 flights so far, according to the flight-tracking service FlightAware, with more than 600 alone at the three main airports serving New York City.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned of potentially “the biggest snowstorm in the history of this city,” urging residents of the U.S. financial capital and most populous city to stay off the roads.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged people to work from home, saying the city’s bus and subway systems could be closed ahead of Monday’s evening commute, along with the Metro North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road as well as other commuter rail services.

In Connecticut, Governor Daniel Malloy told residents that bus service statewide would shut down by 8 p.m. EST and that a travel ban would be in place to keep drivers off roads.

President Barack Obama, who is traveling in New Delhi, India, was briefed on the coming storm earlier on Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

As New York sidewalks began turning white, last-minute shoppers grabbed supplies. In a Best Market grocery in the city’s Harlem neighborhood, about two dozen people stood with filled baskets in a line that stretched the length of the store.

“Usually it’s not like that on a weekday morning,” store manager Dror Dayce said. “Yesterday they cleaned us out.”

Sarah Schaefer, a 31-year old professor at Columbia University, waited to pay for canned food and bread. “We’ve seen instances where they told us to be prepared and it wasn’t so bad,” she said, “and then other instances it was really bad.”

The biggest snowfall on record in New York City came during the storm of Feb. 11-12, 2006, dropping 26.9 inches (68 cm), according to the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

The NWS called the approaching system a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard,” with many areas along the East Coast expected to be blanketed by 12 inches to 24 inches (30-60 cm) of snow. The New York City area could be the hardest hit, with lashing winds topping 50 miles per hour (81 kph) and snowfall of 30 inches (76 cm) or more in some suburbs.

Cities along the heavily populated East Coast had snow plows and trucks on standby to dispense road salt.

The Greater New York Taxi Association said its members will offer free rides to emergency workers unable to get to work and the elderly who might be stranded by the snow.

“We believe this will be a long-duration cleanup and I urge everyone to plan accordingly,” Gov. Malloy told reporters in Hartford. “If you can leave work early or work from home, please do.”

Philadelphia public schools as well as Catholic schools will close at noon on Monday.

In New York, de Blasio said school children could probably expect to have Tuesday off.

Service at Boston’s Logan International Airport was expected to end around 7 p.m. EST on Monday, with carriers planning to move all planes out of the airport before the worst of the storm, officials said.

“Tuesday we’ll be left with keeping this airport open as best we can and trying to stay ahead of this storm,” Edward Freni, director of aviation, told reporters.

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