WASHINGTON (AP) - The commuter chaos caused by a light dusting of snow in the nation's capital was an ominous prelude to the massive blizzard bearing down on the eastern United States on Thursday.
Less than an inch of snow fell Wednesday night in the District of Columbia, Maryland and northern Virginia, but that was enough for roads to immediately freeze over, causing hundreds of accidents and leaving drivers gridlocked for hours. President Obama wasn't spared, as his motorcade slowly weaved and skidded along icy streets to the White House.
The mayor apologized to the city, saying more trucks should have been sent out to lay salt ahead of the snow -- a mistake she said won't be repeated ahead of the much bigger storm arriving Friday.
"We are very sorry for (our) inadequate response," District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said. "We should have been out earlier, with more resources."
The sorry preview raised concerns among people scrambling to prepare for up to 2 feet of heavy wet snow and blizzard conditions across the Mid-Atlantic region. Icy conditions already caused accidents that killed two drivers in North Carolina and one in Tennessee. A truck with a snowplow killed a pedestrian while it was snowing in Maryland.
"It's going to be dangerous out there," said Tonya Woods, 42, a Metro station manager. She had a much longer-than-usual drive home to suburban Clinton, Maryland, on Wednesday night, and worries that Friday will be much worse. "I say they should shut things down," she said.
Most major school districts in the region either closed Thursday or opened late. Bowser announced that the district schools would pre-emptively close on Friday, and that city offices would close at noon, hours ahead of the storm. A decision on federal workers was pending.
States of emergency were declared in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, where road crews were out in force Thursday. Blizzard watches were in effect along the storm's path, from Arkansas through Tennessee and Kentucky to the mid-Atlantic states and as far north as New York.
Kentucky's legislature cancelled its Friday session ahead of an expected 14 inches of snow. The heaviest snowfall, up to 2 feet, was forecast for areas west and southwest of the nation's capital. Washington itself could see 15 to 20 inches, Philadelphia could get 12 to 18, and New York City and Long Island could see 8 to 10, said meteorologist Patrick Burke.
"In addition to heavy snow, we'll see really strong winds in the metro area, possibly 40 to 50 mph. That's going to cause a lot of blowing and drifting snow, and it's also going to reduce visibility to about zero at times" around Washington and Baltimore, National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Hofmann said.
MAP OF WINTER STORM WATCHES/WARNINGS
High winds could make it miserable outdoors even where smaller amounts of snow are expected. Forecasters warned of 30 mph winds in Manhattan on Saturday and coastal flooding in New Jersey.
But Boston, which bore the brunt of massive snowstorms last year, is expected to get just a few inches. If that forecast holds, Mayor Marty Walsh said Thursday that he would lend Bowser two new truck-mounted snow blowers to help clear the capital's streets.
The strongest winds and potentially life-threatening blizzard conditions are expected Friday night through Saturday night, making driving very dangerous along the Interstate 95 corridor.
Train service could be disrupted as well, by frozen switches, the loss of third-rail electric power or trees falling on overhead wires. About 1,000 track workers will be deployed to keep New York City's subway system moving, and 79 trains will have "scraper shoes" to reduce icing on the rails, the Metropolitan Transit Authority said.
All major airlines have issued waivers for travel over the weekend, allowing passengers to rebook onto earlier or later flights to avoid the storms. The airports included vary by carrier, but American Airlines, for example, has canceled most of its Friday and Saturday flights in the eastern U.S., including all 654 flights at its hub in Charlotte, N.C. American's flights should resume on Sunday at the three Washington and Baltimore area airports and New York's three airports, the company said.
In and around the nation's capital on Thursday, roads were mostly treated and clear for the morning rush hour, but some elevated roads, ramps and side streets remained icy, forcing drivers to inch along. In Virginia, police responded to 767 crashes over a 24-hour period ending early Thursday, including a trooper hit by a car sliding out-of-control, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said.
The snow grounded the helicopter Obama usually uses to travel from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House, and it took the presidential motorcade about an hour and 14 minutes to travel the 15 miles. The SUVs passed four accidents, and was repeatedly forced to stop, skidding sideways on the ice until a curb kept their wheels on the road.
Some Maryland road crews got stuck in lengthy backups Wednesday night, slowing their progress. Crews also struggled to keep up in Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe warned people Thursday to take seriously the threat of the coming storm, and stay home if possible until it passes.
Chrissy Wiginton, 35, who works as an editor at the Smithsonian, said her walk across the National Mall Thursday morning made her doubt the governments' preparations.
"I was really surprised by how bad the sidewalks were," she said. "It was really icy."
One major event in Washington was still on: the March for Life, an annual anti-abortion rally that's usually one of the largest events on the National Mall. It will be held Friday, the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.