U.S. winter storm leads to thousands of cancelled flights

A storm expected to bring more than 30 centimetres of snow, stiff winds and punishing cold has swept into the northeast U.S., extending Christmas break for some students while posing the first test for New York's new mayor.

Boston highways, schools to stay closed and parking bans imposed Friday

Walkers brave the cold and snow in Buffalo, N.Y, Thursday. A winter storm promising significant snowfall, strong winds and frigid air bore down Thursday on the northeast U.S., making commutes hazardous for the first work day of the new year. (Mark Mulville/Associated Press)

A storm expected to bring more than 30 centimetres of snow, stiff winds and punishing cold pushed into the northeast U.S. on Thursday, extending Christmas break for some students while posing the first test for New York's new mayor and perhaps the last challenge for Boston's outgoing one.

Some schools in New England and New York closed well ahead of the snow, while cities mobilized plows and salt spreaders, and state offices sent workers home early. Some major highways were ordered shut down overnight. U.S. airlines cancelled more than 2,300 flights nationwide on Thursday in advance of the storm.

The heavy weather began rolling in just a day after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was sworn in to lead the nation's largest city and a few days before Boston Mayor Thomas Menino ends 20 years in office.

A pedestrian walks through snow Thursday morning in Albany, N.Y. (Mike Groll/Associated Press)

Menino announced a parking ban and said schools would be closed Friday in Boston, where up to 35 centimetres of snow was expected. Boston's airport said it would not handle any flights after 8:30 p.m. Thursday.

"What a New Year's gift, to receive one last snowstorm as mayor," said Menino, whose successor takes office on Monday.

De Blasio, who as public advocate in 2010 criticized his predecessor Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his handling of a post-Christmas storm, said hundreds of plows and salt spreaders would be on the streets as soon as the snow started falling Thursday night.

"We have to get it right, no question about it," de Blasio said. "We are focused like a laser on protecting this city and getting everyone ready. We have all hands on deck."

Snow began falling overnight Wednesday in parts of New England and New York state, but the brunt of the storm wasn't expected until late Thursday. Forecasters said temperatures would plummet, with some areas seeing highs just above –17 C and windchill readings of –23 and colder.

Blizzard warning issued for coast

The National Weather Service issued a blizzard warning for Cape Cod, coastal areas north and south of Boston and part of Maine as well as New York's Long Island, where 20 to 25 centimetres of snow could fall and winds could gust to 72 km/h. Thirty-five to 45 centimetres of snow were forecast, with up to 60 centimetres in some areas along the Massachusetts coast.

"We're going to see a lot of snow and a lot of wind," forecaster Jason Tuell said. "We're concerned about whiteout conditions possibly tonight with the blowing and drifting snow."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said state offices that closed early Thursday would remain closed on Friday. He said National Guard members and state police were on standby for any high-tide flooding overnight or Friday in vulnerable coastal areas, but no mandatory evacuations have been ordered.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered three major highways in New York, stretching from Long Island to Albany, to close overnight Thursday. He said the highways should reopen at 5 a.m. Friday.

Salt storage worker killed

As the storm approached, a worker at a suburban Philadelphia salt storage facility was killed Thursday afternoon when a 30-metre-tall pile of road salt fell and crushed him. Falls Township police said the man was trapped while operating a backhoe. There was no immediate word on what may have caused the accident.

Interior southern New England and New York state could get up to 30 centimetres of snow. New York City was expecting 20 centimetres, while Philadelphia could see seven to 17 centimetres.

In New York, Con Ed spokesman Sidney Alvarez said the utility was expecting the snow to be powdery rather than wet and heavy, "but with any type of snow, you're looking at extra weight on branches that can snap and bring power lines down."

Douglass Bibule shopped for rock salt and other supplies at a home improvement store in Watertown, Mass.

"Well, there will be some shovelling that I will have to do and some sanding. I've got to go home and do some stretching exercises to make sure I don't hurt myself while doing that, and do a little shopping to make sure that we have all the supplies that we need. We need food because we have three older children at home."

In Maine, the cold didn't deter Andrew Kosak from swinging by Gelato Fiasco in Brunswick to take advantage of a cold-weather promotion: The price of the dessert drops one per cent for every degree below freezing.

"It's never too cold for gelato," Kosak quipped after receiving a 36 per cent discount that reflected the temperature during an outing with his wife and two daughters.

As the storm pushed eastward on New Year's Day and Thursday, it dropped as much as 45 centimetres on suburban Chicago and up to 25 centimetres on Michigan, prompting the cancellation Wednesday of hundreds of flights in and out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. 

AAA Michigan said it received 3,100 calls Thursday from drivers dealing with spinouts, cars in ditches and dead batteries. Accidents and delays were also reported from Missouri to New Hampshire.