Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
Tens of millions of people face travel nightmares,widespread power outages and potentially record snowfall from the fierce blizzard on track to batter the Northeast this weekend.
New England and New York are forecast to take the hardest hit, but others around the country could feel the ripple effect from canceled flights out of New York and other airports along the Eastern Seaboard.
The New York City metro area, home to three airports and 20 million residents in four states, is expected to see heavy snow, with as much as 12 inches possible in the metro area, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
The storm isn't expected to have a major economic impact on New England, said economist David Iaia of Lexington, Mass.-based IHS Global Insight.
"If everything just shuts down for a day, the vast majority of business merely gets shifted to before the storm or after the storm," Iaia said.
Thursday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings for the entire New York City metro area, Long Island, all of Connecticut and Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts and coastal sections of New Hampshire and Maine. Some parts of New England should see more than 2 feet of snow, and some coastal areas could see hurricane-force winds of up to 74 mph, the weather service says.
Anticipating the storm's impact, every big U.S. airline has issued flexible re-booking policies. The move allowed most fliers ticketed to fly to airports in the storm's path to make one change to their flights without the standard change fees.
By late Thursday, airlines had already proactively canceled nearly 1,200 flights ahead of the storm, according to flight-tracking service FlightAware. About three-fourths of that number came just from the three New York airports.
With such a large number of cancellations, the flight disruptions in New York and the Northeast are all but certain to ripple through airports across the nation. A flight from Houston to Los Angeles, for example, could become delayed or canceled if the aircraft or crew scheduled to fly it gets knocked off schedule because of problems in Boston or New York.
The blizzard could be a top-10 storm for Boston: The most the city has ever received from one snowstorm was on Feb. 17-18, 2003, when 27.5 inches fell, according to weather service records.
"This is going to be a very serious storm," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said in a prepared statement. "I want to stress the best thing everyone can do Friday and Saturday is stay home."
Schools will be closed Friday, and the city is moving trash collection up to 6 a.m. ET Friday, the mayor's office says. The city is instituting a snow emergency starting at noon on Friday, which means parking will not be allowed on major streets, the office says.
Across the region, businesses are watching to see whether the storm will force them to close. Some are even turning to social media to communicate with customers, giving them more flexibility in how they respond.
At Webster Bank, which has 168 branches stretching from White Plains, N.Y., to Boston, an incident-response committee will determine a plan of action, probably Friday morning, Senior Vice President Bob Guenther said. They'll use whatever means possible to communicate with the branches, some of which will remain open, depending on the weather.
"The school closings eat up all the TV,'' Guenther said. "We'll use social media, our website, or plain old telephones,'' to communicate with bank employees. They'll rely on the Web to reach customers.
At Bon-Ton Stores, which expects as many as eight of its New England and Upstate New York stores might be affected, closing is a store-by-store decision driven by safety needs, Vice President Mary Kerr said. There's often little need to get the word out since customers instinctively stay home and stay safe, she said.
Not everyone is panicked about the incoming storm. Ski resorts all over New England are excited about what could be the biggest snowfall of the season: "If I had a tail, it would be wagging," says Stowe Mountain Resort spokesman Mike Colbourn. "Presidents (Day) week is next week, a big nor'easter - all of the stars are in alignment."
"As far as where the big ski areas are, we are at ground zero for this storm - we are in the 24-inch band," says Bruce McCloy, director of Marketing for Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury, N.H., "We are so excited! It's going to be awesome. How are we getting ready? We are dancing a jig, and then after that, we are getting ready. We haven't had any big storms in the past two years, so this is really big."
Source: AccuWeather; National Weather Service (erh.noaa.gov/box/RecordSnows.htm)
By Kevin Kepple and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
Contributing: Ben Mutzabaugh, Natalie DiBlasio, Melanie Eversley, TIm Mullaney, USA TODAY