BOSTON - A storm expected to bring more than a foot of snow, stiff winds and punishing cold pushed into the Northeast 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 canceled 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.
Menino announced a parking ban and said schools would be closed Friday in Boston, where up to 14 inches 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 zero and wind-chill readings of minus-10 and colder.
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 8 to 10 inches of snow could fall and winds could gust to 45 mph. Fourteen to 18 inches of snow were forecast, with up to 2 feet 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 Thursday night 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.
Efforts were underway to get homeless people off the streets of New York City and Boston and into the warmth and safety of shelters Thursday evening. Outreach teams in New York were looking for people who needed beds in shelters.
In Boston, staff members at the Pine Street Inn were keeping the shelter open 24-hours and said they would turn no one away, even if it meant setting up extra cots in lobbies and other common areas.
As the storm approached, a worker at a suburban Philadelphia salt storage facility was killed Thursday afternoon when a 100-foot-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 a foot of snow. New York City was expecting 8 inches, while Philadelphia could see 3 to 7.
Amtrak plans to run trains on all of its Northeast lines on Friday but will operate on a modified schedule, said spokeswoman Christina Leeds.
"There's not as many people anticipating travel tomorrow (Friday), so we're operating on a reduced schedule," she said.
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 shoveling 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 a gelato drops 1 percent for every degree below freezing.
"It's never too cold for gelato," Kosak quipped after receiving a 36-percent discount that reflected the minus-4 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 18 inches on suburban Chicago and up to 10 inches on Michigan, prompting the cancellation Wednesday of hundreds of flights in and out of Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Below-zero cold is expected across the region over the next few days.
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.
"Anything below 25 degrees and the salt isn't nearly as effective," said Becky Allmeroth, a maintenance engineer with the state of Missouri, where crews were mixing chemicals and beet juice with salt to try to make roads passable.
Authorities said the weather may have been a factor in a fatal crash Wednesday evening involving a pickup and a bus carrying casino patrons in Indiana. Police said the truck's driver was killed and 15 bus passengers were injured in the collision on a snow-covered and slushy highway in Rolling Prairie.
The weather also was blamed for the death of a woman in Kentucky struck by a car as she walked on an icy road where her car had slid into a guardrail.