Residents of the U.S. Northeast are girding for a "crippling and potentially historic" storm that could bury communities from northern New Jersey to southern Maine in about 60 centimetres of snow.

The National Weather Service said the nor'easter would bring heavy snow, powerful winds and widespread coastal flooding starting Monday and through Tuesday. A blizzard warning was issued for a 400-kilometre stretch of the Northeast, including New York and Boston.

Government officials began to activate emergency centres on Sunday as professional sports teams, schools and utilities hastily revised their schedules and made preparations.

"This could be a storm the likes of which we have never seen before," New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference in a Manhattan sanitation garage where workers were preparing plows and salt for the massive cleanup on about 9,600 kilometres of city roadways.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker warned residents to prepare for roads that are "very hard, if not impossible, to navigate," power outages and possibly even a lack of public transportation.

Boston is expected to get 45 to 60 centimetres of snow, with up to 60 centimetres or more west of the city, and Philadelphia could see up to a foot, the weather service said.

The Washington area expected only a couple of inches, with steadily increasing amounts as the storm heads north.

"We do anticipate very heavy snowfall totals," said Bob Oravec, lead forecaster with the weather service in College Park, Maryland. "In addition to heavy snow, with blizzard warnings, there's a big threat of high, damaging winds, and that will be increasing Monday into Tuesday. A lot of blowing, drifting and such."

Wind gusts of 120 km/h or more are possible for coastal areas of Massachusetts, and up to 80 km/h further inland, Oravec said.

Airlines prepared to shut down operations along the East Coast, leading to the expected cancellation of about 1,700 flights scheduled for Monday, according to the flight tracking site FlightAware.

A storm system driving out of the Midwest brought several centimetres of snow to Ohio on Sunday. A new low pressure system was expected to form off the Carolina coast and ultimately spread from Washington, D.C., to Maine for a "crippling and potentially historic blizzard," the weather service said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged commuters to stay home on Monday and warned that mass transit and roadways could be closed before the evening rush hour, even major highways such as the New York Thruway, Interstate 84 and the Long Island Expressway.

In New York City, the Greater New York Taxi Association offered free cab service for emergency responders trying to get to work, and disabled and elderly residents who become stranded.

The New York Rangers decided to practice Monday afternoon at the Islanders' home arena on Long Island instead of at their own training facility just outside New York City. They'll stay overnight on Long Island for Tuesday's game against their rival — if it's still held.

The Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots expected to be out of town by the time the storm arrives in Boston. The team plans to leave Logan Airport at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday for Phoenix, where the temperature will reach 21 C.

Storms slam East Coast

Canadians in the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador faced their own wintry conditions that caused power outages in some area Sunday.

In Nova Scotia emergency crews worked to restore power to nearly 1,000 households left without power following a system that brought a mix of snow, rain and high winds. Power was also knocked to some areas of New Brunswick, which dealt with the worst of the storm Saturday, and travel advisories remained in place at the airport in Moncton.

​​Heavy rains that lashed Newfoundland yesterday washing out several major roadways tapered off Sunday but fierce winds that reached up to 154 km/h on the southwest coast led to the postponement of ferry crossings and continued to cause problems for drivers.

Wind warnings were in place across much of the island, while Environment Canada warned the west coast could see snow squalls Sunday night.

Conditions were even harsher in Labrador, where the Department of Transportation had to keep emergency crews in the south off main roadways due to the storm while residents in the north could see blizzard-like conditions. 

Lord's Cove

Storm surges washed out several roads in Newfoundland over the weekend. (Margaret Mary Martin)

In Ontario, the cities of Toronto and Hamilton issued extreme cold weather warnings, and Ottawa warned residents to be wary of the potential for frostbite into Monday. 

Extra services will be available to the homeless in Toronto, including two 24-hour drop-ins and extra shelter beds, city officials said. 

With files from CBC News