Updated Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 08:28 AM
A vast storm system descended on the Northeast on Friday, bringing high winds, deepening snow and threats of flooding to southern New England and reopening the wounds of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York.
After a day of pelting wet snow, five states — New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — had declared states of emergency, and Massachusetts had banned vehicles from every road in the state. By nightfall, conditions quickly deteriorated. Major highways such as Interstate 93 were almost completely abandoned; downtown Boston, in blizzard conditions, was a ghost town lost in a swirl of howling winds and snow. Parked cars lost their shape and resembled scoops of ice cream.
The worst was still to come, at least in New England. Forecasters said the storm would continue through Saturday afternoon and winds could reach 75 mph, leaving behind a fresh white blanket perhaps 3 feet deep.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told people to stay home and warned them not to “panic buy” gasoline because the supply was plentiful. But the memory of Hurricane Sandy in October was so fresh that many went on buying sprees anyway, emptying store shelves and filling extra containers of gasoline in addition to their car tanks.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as they’re saying, but I said that with Sandy too,” said Lavel Samuels, 42, as she filled her tank at a gas station in Queens.
That grim mood contrasted sharply with a more playful sense among some in New England, where the prospect of new snow thrilled skiers who have bemoaned almost two seasons of barren slopes. “These aren’t flakes falling from the sky, these are dollar bills,” said Ed Carrier as he sat in a coffee shop in Portsmouth, N.H., and envisioned the boon for winter sports.
Staff members at the Thirsty Moose Taphouse nearby said they were determined to stay open through the storm until their regular closing time at 1 a.m. (except in the case of a power failure), and offered storm-related drink specials: $3 porters and stouts, as long as it was snowing.
But in most cities and towns, Friday was largely a day of preparing for the worst. With hurricane-force winds, the National Weather Service expects flooding along the Atlantic Coast that could affect up to 8 million people.
By late Friday, more than 18.5 inches of snow had fallen in parts of central Connecticut, and more than 16 inches covered parts of Mansfield, Mass., a half-hour drive southwest of Boston. Throughout the Northeast, more than 500,000 customers lost power.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick took the unusual step of ordering all vehicles off all roads, not just state roads, by 4 p.m. Friday, well before the brunt of the storm had hit. Violators could face up to a year in prison and a fine, though exceptions were made for emergency workers, members of the news media and anyone with a snowplow.
“Two or 3 feet of snow is a profoundly different kind of storm than we have dealt with,” the governor said from the state’s emergency bunker in Framingham.
Officials recalled only one previous such traffic ban, in the aftermath of the Blizzard of 1978, when more than 27 inches of snow paralyzed the region, forcing people to abandon their cars in the middle of roadways.
Maine declared a partial emergency, allowing it to suspend federal transportation rules, extend worker hours and bring in extra crews from Canada to assist with storm-damage repair.
Thousands of flights were grounded Friday and thousands more were expected to be suspended through the weekend.
Boston’s transit system, including subway, buses and commuter rail lines, suspended service at 3:30 p.m., allowing first-shift workers to get home and second-shift workers to get to work.
The city inaugurated its SnowOps Viewer, an online portal that allows viewers to see where all snowplows are in real time.
In New York City, transit officials announced increased bus and train service in the afternoon to help commuters beat the worst of the storm. But New Jersey Transit suspended most of its commuter train and bus service by 8 p.m.
Amtrak suspended northbound service out of New York on Friday afternoon and southbound service out of Boston.
Schools throughout New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were shut or sent students home early.
By Saturday, the total snowfall in New York City was expected to be between 10 and 14 inches. In New London, Conn., forecasters said there would most likely be more than 24 inches of snow and even more in Boston, which could break modern records by topping 28 inches.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
Carmine Galasso / The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
A food shopper leaves after stocking up Friday at the A&P market in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., in anticipation of a major snowstorm with winds possibly reaching up to 75 mph.
Kelly Shea / The Seattle Times