A blizzard with gale-force winds paralyzed the southern and eastern United States on Saturday, dumping snow as millions hunkered down at home, hoping their food supplies would last and the power won't go out.

Seven states declared states of emergency, as parts of the U.S. capital were blanketed with nearly 60 centimetres of drifting snow. At least 18 deaths have been blamed on the weather, most from traffic accidents. One person died in Maryland while shovelling snow.

The declarations were issued for Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, New York and parts of other states. 

About 85 million people are in the storm's path. Utilities are bracing for possible mass outages as the storm system moves northeastward.

The U.S. National Weather Service said the winter storm could rank near the top 10 to ever hit the region.

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Workers shovel snow during a snowstorm in New York's Times Square. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

"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, adding that it could easily cause more than $1 billion US in damage.

In New Jersey, the power company that serves most the state is urging customers to watch for falling power lines because of strong winds.

By mid-morning Saturday, outages affected 80,000 customers in New Jersey and more than 8,000 in Virginia.

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A front-end loader piles snow on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

About 1,000 traffic crashes and another 800 disabled vehicles were reported in Virginia, even as authorities warned people to stay off the roads because of whiteout conditions.

Thousands of people were stuck in a massive traffic standstill on the I-75 highway in Kentucky, some of them stranded since 2 p.m. Friday, prompting the state's governor to call out the national guard.

New Jersey Transit temporarily shut down all of its services, and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Authority halted all trains around Philadelphia.

NYC imposes travel ban

"People have to take very seriously what's going on here and recognize there is a lot of danger and a lot of disruption that's going to occur because of this storm, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters.

"This storm will surpass 20 inches accumulation in New York City." he said, adding by the time it tapers off late Saturday, it will likely be recorded as one of five worst winter storms in the city's history.

APTOPIX Big Snow Storm New York

Jessica Ourisman, a travel adviser from Baltimore, looks up at the buildings around the New York Stock Exchange while touring lower Manhattan with others during the storm Saturday. (Julie Jacobson/Associated Press)

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said a travel ban will be in effect for roads in the New York City area and Long Island, starting at 2:30 p.m. ET. De Blasio said later Saturday the travel ban will be extended past midnight until 7 a.m. Sunday.

Public bus service in the city was suspended at noon, but roughly 1,000 track workers were working to keep the subway system moving.

However, Cuomo warned that above-ground trains will stop running at 4 p.m.

The subway in Washington D.C. was expected to remain closed the entire weekend, CBC's Lyndsay Duncombe reported.

Snowy Washington D.C.3:05

Winter storm warnings and winter weather advisories also remained in effect for a large area that extended from the Tennessee Valley to the Ohio Valley, and spanned from the Carolinas to southern New England.

High-wind warnings and watches are in effect for coastal regions in the mid-Atlantic and southern New England. Coastal flood warnings and watches are in effect from Virginia to Massachusetts. 

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Roads and sidewalks were already blanketed in snow in Washington D.C. on Friday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The mammoth storm system earlier has shuttered tens of millions of residents from northern Georgia to New Jersey, dumping heavy snow in 14 states.

Forecasters have predicted up to a centimetre of ice accumulation in the Carolinas and potentially serious coastal flooding in the mid-Atlantic. 

The National Weather Service's website early Saturday said 45 centimetres of snow had fallen on Ulysses in eastern Kentucky, while 40 centimetres fell in Beattyville.

The weather service says 18 centimetres of snow fell in Washington, D.C. while snowfall amounts in nearby Maryland ranged between 11 centimetres in Baltimore and 34 centimetres in Oakland.

Thousands of flights cancelled

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It was time to install chains on the tires of this car, stuck in the snow that hit Philadelphia, Pa. The city was under a snow emergency on Saturday. (Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

Various locations in Georgia and Alabama received between two and eight centimetres of snow.
 
Snow started falling Friday, but the worst was still yet to come, with strong winds and heavy snow expected to produce "life-threatening blizzard conditions" throughout the day Saturday.

About 7,600 flights were cancelled Friday and Saturday across the U.S. East Coast -- about 15 per cent of the airlines' schedules, according to the flight-tracking service FlightAware. They hope to be fully back in business by Sunday afternoon.  

Where is the storm heading?

Once the storm moves over the U.S. East Coast and into the mid-Atlantic, Canadian forecasters say the low pressure system will brush the southern edge of the Maritime provinces.

Canada's East Coast won't be hit nearly as hard by the edge of the storm, said Dave Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada.

He said the south shore of Nova Scotia could get about 10 centimetres of snow on Sunday morning.

U.S. East Coast snowstorm from space

Astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted this photo of the snowstorm blanketing the U.S. East Coast as seen from the International Space Station. (Scott Kelly)

Corrections

  • The governor of New York is Andrew Cuomo, not his late father Mario, as was reported earlier in this story.
    Jan 23, 2016 2:30 PM ET
With files from CBC News and Reuters