WASHINGTON, D.C. (AP) -- A winter storm that is sweeping through the mid-Atlantic and Northeast Tuesday has forced the government officials in Washington, D.C., to close their offices in anticipation of heavy snowfall that is expected to hit numerous cities, while airports are already canceling thousands of flights.
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The National Weather Service said the storm could bring 10 to 14 inches of snow to Philadelphia and up to a foot in New York City, to be followed by bitter cold. An arctic air mass will plunge the eastern half of the United States into a deep freeze, with wind chills as low as 40 degrees below zero, the weather service said. Between 4 to 10 inches of snow is expected in the Washington, D.C., area, and parts of New England, including the city of Boston, could see up to 15 inches, according to reports from Fox affiliate stations.
It warned of heavy winds and hazardous driving conditions as the storm moved up the East Coast.
The snow, which began mid-morning, is expected to continue through the late evening hours, with the heaviest snow expected Tuesday afternoon and evening.
Schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky are sending students home early on Tuesday or staying closed for an extra day after the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday.
The Office of Personnel Management says non-emergency personnel in and around Washington are granted excused absences for the day. Emergency employees and telework-ready employees are expected to work.
Tom Ripley, who works at a Washington hardware store, said his morning commute was cut in half because "there was almost no one on the road."
He said the store was jammed Monday as customers stocked up on ice melt and shovels.
"Nobody prepares because we never get any snow, so the slightest chance of it, everybody freaks out," Ripley said.
Both chambers of Delaware's General Assembly are also canceling sessions Tuesday.
The National Weather Service is warning of heavy winds and hazardous driving conditions as the storm moves up the East Coast.
Airports across the U.S. have canceled more than 2,900 flights as of Tuesday morning, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware.com.
More than 30 percent of incoming flights have been canceled at airports in New York City, Newark, Boston, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
More than 650 flights for Wednesday were also already canceled.
The MTA urged commuters to leave work early as the storm arrived earlier than was predicted.
Schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky stayed closed for an extra day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, or planned to send students home early. Some parents kept their kids home even if their schools were open, unwilling to put them on slippery roads.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reduced speeds on interstates and other major roads, and said it had already blown through more than half of its $189 million winter weather budget.
"Lots of nuisance storms this season have meant that PennDOT crews have been plowing and treating roads more frequently this winter," agency spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt said.
The storm is part of a bitter blast of arctic air that is expected to sweep south into Iowa and as far east as Maine by Tuesday night, and remain entrenched through Thursday.
Paul Collar, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said highs could be in the single digits.
"It's not to the extent of the last outbreak, but it's still bitterly cold," he told The Associated Press.
Some areas across the U.S.-Canada border could see nighttime lows in the negative double digits in the next few days, he said.
Portions of Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were under wind chill warnings, meaning wind chills could be 34 degrees below zero or colder.
"With these temperatures you're going to have issues with exposed skin and frostbite, but not to the degree of severity of the last outbreak," he said, describing it as "a normal cold event you'd see in a typical winter."
The last blast of arctic air caused a propane shortage in several states, with some declaring energy emergencies to speed up deliveries.
David Field, the executive vice president of the Ohio Propane Gas Association, told Fox8.com that the Department of Transportation has issued a regional order loosening rules for propane transportation in 10 Midwest states. A similar order is in effect for 14 Eastern states, he said.
“The month of December brought historically cold weather, ice and snow, which further inhibited the transportation of propane. Demand for residential, commercial and agricultural heat soared,” Field told the station. "All these combined to prevent regional inventories from recovering and the existing pipeline and terminal infrastructure has been unable to recover.”
According to the Washington-based Propane Education & Research Council, more than 14 million families use propane to fuel their furnaces, water heaters, air conditioners, outdoor grills, fireplaces, clothes dryers, and ranges.