A swirling storm with the potential for more than a foot of snow clobbered the mid-Atlantic and the urban Northeast on Tuesday, grounding thousands of flights, closing government offices in the nation's capital and making a mess of the evening commute.

The storm stretched 1,600 kilometres between Kentucky and Massachusetts but hit especially hard along the heavily populated Interstate 95 corridor between Philadelphia and Boston, creating a perilous ride home for millions of motorists.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 25 centimetres of snow had fallen just outside Philadelphia in Drexel Hill by Tuesday evening and there was about 15 centimetres in Philadelphia. The National Weather Service said parts of New York City also had about 15 centimetres.

The snow came down harder and faster than many people expected. Forecasters said some places could get as much as five centimetres an hour, with wind gusts up to 80 kilometres an hour. A blizzard warning was posted for parts of Massachusetts, including Cape Cod.

Highways in the New York City metropolitan area were jammed, and blowing snow tripled or even quadrupled drive times.

"I just want to get to the Bronx," motorist Peter Neuwens lamented. "It's a big place. Why can't I get there?"

In Jersey City, N.J., Stanley Gaines, wearing just a thin jacket and huddling beneath an overhang as snow stung his face, said he had been stuck for more than an hour waiting for a ride home from his appointment at a Veterans Affairs clinic.

"I'm waiting on anything I can get: a taxi, a shuttle, a bus," Gaines said, squinting to read the destination on an approaching bus in near white-out conditions. "I didn't really pay attention to the weather this morning because there was no snow on the ground, and now — this!"

In White Plains, N.Y., Anthony Schirrone pulled over his car to scrape snow from the windshield.

"I just did this five minutes ago," he said. "But it's coming down too fast."

Heavy snowfall expected

The storm was blamed for at least one death in Maryland after a car fishtailed into the path of a tractor-trailer on a snow-covered road northwest of Baltimore. The car's driver was thrown from the vehicle.

Forecasters said the storm could bring 25 to 35 centimetres of snow to Philadelphia and southern New England and up to a foot in New York City, to be followed by bitter cold as arctic air from Canada streams in. Washington was expecting 10 to 20 centimetres.

As of Tuesday evening, there was mostly light snow across Connecticut, Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts from the Boston area southward. Snowfall totals in the region ranged from about 12 to 17 centimetres.

In Maryland, 20 centimetres had accumulated in Westminster and at least 17 centiemtres had fallen in Frederick. The storm was blamed for at least one death in Maryland after a car fishtailed into the path of a tractor-trailer on a snow-covered road northwest of Baltimore.

The storm was a conventional one that developed off the coast and moved its way up the Eastern Seaboard, pulling in cold air from the arctic. Unlike the epic freeze of two weeks ago, it wasn't caused by a kink in the polar vortex, the winds that circulate around the North Pole.

Pennsylvania's Transportation Department said it had already blown through more than half of its $189 million winter weather budget.

"Lots of nuisance storms this season have meant that PennDOT crews have been plowing and treating roads more frequently this winter," spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said.

About 3,000 flights Tuesday were cancelled, with airports from Washington to Boston affected. More than 1,000 flights for Wednesday were called off as well. Amtrak planned to cut back train service in the afternoon.

The rush to get home early by many workers was evident in Philadelphia, where many commuter trains were packed.

Pearson Airport said that some flights to and from the Eastern U.S. could also be affected due to the weather and advised passengers to check flight schedules in advance.

School cancelled

The storm put a damper on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's inauguration, forcing the cancellation of an evening party on Ellis Island. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick postponed his annual State of the State address, while the Philadelphia Flyers postponed their Tuesday night hockey game.

Winter Weather Mass

Heavy snow hit portions of Massachusetts on Tuesday, prompting Gov. Deval Patrick to dismiss non-emergency state workers early and postpone his annual State of the State address. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky stayed closed for an extra day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, or sent students home early. Some parents kept their kids home all day, unwilling to put them on slippery roads for a few hours of school.

Federal workers in the Washington area were also given the day off.

Standing in Philadelphia's LOVE Park with snow swirling around her, visitor Jenn Byrne of Portland, Ore., said the nasty weather put a crimp in her plans to do a "giant walking tour" of the city. But she vowed to soldier on, taking cabs instead of trudging. She wasn't wearing snow boots.

"I'll keep going. Just the means of transportation will change a bit," Byrne said.

Others shrugged off the snow as well.

In Herndon, Va., where voters were casting ballots in a special election that was likely to determine control of the state Senate, Earlene Coleman said she felt obligated to make her selection: "It only made sense to come out and do my duty."

Construction worker Tony Cockrell, stopping for coffee at a Hagerstown, Md., gas station, said he planned to continue driving to work sites in western Maryland and northern Virginia to supervise the installation of insulation in building projects.

"If you don't work, you don't get paid," he said, adding that deep cold is good for business. "We're trying to get stuff insulated so it doesn't freeze up."

With files from CBC News