A massive blizzard began dumping snow on the southern and eastern United States on Friday, with mass flight cancellations, several states declaring states of emergency and more than 60 centimetres predicted for Washington alone.

At least nine people died in traffic accidents related to the storm.

The National Weather Service said the winter storm could rank near the top 10 to ever hit the region. NWS meteorologist Paul Kocin compared it to "Snowmageddon," the first of two storms that "wiped out" Washington in 2010, but he said the weekend timing could help limit deaths and damage.

"It does have the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm that can affect more than 50 million people," said Louis Uccellini, director of the weather service. The snowfall, expected to continue from late Friday into Sunday, could easily cause more than $1 billion US in damage and paralyze the eastern third of the nation, he said.

So far, the snowstorm was looking just like the forecasts promised, NWS forecaster Daniel Petersen said Friday afternoon. Washington could get one of its top three storms in history, he said.


Empty grocery store shelves during a blizzard in Washington, D.C., on Jan 22, 2016. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC)

Uccellini said all the elements have come together to create a blizzard with brutally high winds, dangerous inland flooding, white-out conditions and even the possibility of thunder snow, when lightning strikes through a snowstorm.

State of emergency

Snowfall as heavy as 2.5 to 7.6 centimetres an hour could continue for 24 hours or more, Kocin said. In addition to Washington, 30 to 45 centimetres of snow was predicted for Philadelphia and 20 to 30 centimetres for New York.

A state of emergency was declared in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and parts of other states. Blizzard warnings or watches were in effect along the storm's path, from Arkansas through Tennessee and Kentucky to the mid-Atlantic states and as far north as New York.

As far south as Atlanta, people were urged to go home and stay there.

Schools and government offices were closed, thousands of flights were canceled and millions of people stocked up on supplies. College basketball games and concerts in the region were postponed.

All major airlines have issued waivers for travel over the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. Flight tracking service FlightAware said airlines canceled more than 6,000 flights Friday and Saturday. By Sunday afternoon, airlines hope to be back to full schedule.

Obama hunkers down at White House

Washington's subway system said it will shut down entirely late Friday night and remain closed through Sunday. About 1,000 track workers will be deployed to keep New York City's subway system moving and 79 trains will have "scraper shoes" to reduce the icing on the rails.

Big Snowstorm Virginia

Taylor Mushtare scrapes ice and snow from her car in Old Southwest Roanoke, Va., on Friday. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP)

The federal government announced that its offices would be closing at noon Friday. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama would hunker down at the White House.

The U.S. Capitol Police said sledding on Capitol Hill, which only recently became legal after an act of Congress, would be welcome for the first time in decades.

In Washington, Baltimore, and Delaware, archdioceses reminded people that dangerous travel conditions are a legitimate excuse for missing Sunday Mass.

At a supermarket in Baltimore, Sharon Brewington recalled that in the massive snowstorm of 2010, she and her daughter were stuck at home with nothing but noodles and water.

"I'm not going to make that mistake again," she said.

Big Snowstorm Virginia

A snowplow truck makes its way down Electric Road in southwest Roanoke County, Va., on Friday. A blizzard menacing the eastern United States started dumping snow in Virginia, Tennessee and other parts of the South on Friday. (Erica Yoon/The Roanoke Times via AP)