Forecasters expected the system to be followed immediately by a blast of face-stinging cold air that could break records in more than two dozen cities, with wind chills falling to minus 40 in some places this weekend.
Blizzard warnings and states of emergency were in wide effect, and wind gusts hit more than 70 mph (113 kph) in some places. Eastern Massachusetts and most of Rhode Island braced for snow falling as fast as 3 inches per hour.
Three people were killed in North Carolina after their vehicles ran off snow-covered roads, authorities said.
In New Jersey, Orlando Igmat’s car got stuck in a snowbank along the Garden State Parkway in Tinton Falls as he drove to work at Verizon. He waited a half hour for a tow truck to pull him out.
“I didn’t expect it (the storm) was going to be a heavy one. That’s why I went to work today. I’m going to stay in a hotel tonight,” he said.
The risk of power outages raised concerns about people going without heat. More than 100 warming centers were open in 34 towns across Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
The National Weather Service received multiple reports of coastal flooding in Massachusetts, including in Boston, Lynn and Cape Cod, that made roads impassable.
In Boston’s Seaport district, Joe Weatherly, a 40-year-old artist from Los Angeles, held his Boston terrier while searching for a seafood restaurant. Part of the district was flooded.
“For someone in California, this is really, really scary. Mind blowing,” he said. “We don’t live in a state where things shut down with the weather. I’ve just never seen this much snow in my life.”
More than 5,500 homes and businesses lost power Thursday morning in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on the outermost tip of Cape Cod, which was being lashed with hurricane-force wind gusts, the Eversource electric utility said. Much of that power was restored by early afternoon.
In Maine, the problem was a shortage of drivers to deliver heating fuel. Small independent fuel merchants in particular were overwhelmed by customers who do not have automatic refill service, the Portland Press Herald reported.
Linda Heuman and Amy Remensnyder were supposed to fly to Berlin on Thursday, but the flight was canceled. That left them stuck in their home in Providence, Rhode Island, with no food. So they trekked through the snow to a grocery store nearly a mile away.
Their plans for the rest of the day were simple: Make soup, do some desk work and maybe watch a movie with popcorn, Remensnyder said.
Schools, businesses and ferry services in parts of Atlantic Canada were also shut down. Nova Scotia Power said it had more than 1,000 people at the ready in its biggest-ever pre-storm mobilization of personnel and resources.
Wind gusts strong enough to topple trees and power lines were predicted in the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes parts of Delaware, Virginia and Maryland; coastal New Jersey; eastern Long Island, New York; and coastal eastern New England.
More than two-thirds of flights in and out of New York City and Boston airports were canceled. The flight-tracking site FlightAware reported nearly 4,800 canceled flights across the United States.
Rail service was affected too. Amtrak planned to operate a modified schedule between New York and Boston on Thursday. Northeast Regional Service between Washington, D.C., and Newport News/Norfolk, Virginia, was canceled for Thursday.
The storm shut down much of eastern Virginia, but some people took it in stride.
Mark Schoenenberger, a 45-year-old NASA engineer who lives in Norfolk, Virginia, put on his cross country skis so he could make a half hour trip to the bagel shop for some breakfast for his family.
“It’s like ‘Yay, I get to go out,” he said.
The only concern he seemed to have was telecommuting while his kids were home from school. But “it’s just noise,” he said.
Waiting just behind the she storm was a wave of bracing cold.
National Weather Service Meteorologist Dan Peterson said record low temperatures were predicted for 28 major cities across New England, eastern New York and the mid-Atlantic states by dawn Sunday.
Boston expected a low around minus 11 overnight Saturday into Sunday. Portland, Maine, and Burlington, Vermont, could see minus 16 and 19, respectively, the weather service said.
State and local officials urged people to stay home so crews could clear streets and roads of snow. There were concerns in Boston and elsewhere that if roads were not properly cleared, they could freeze into cement-like ice after the cold blast arrives.
In other areas, plummeting temperatures had already caused water mains to burst. Jackson, Mississippi, was under a precautionary boil-water notice after pipes failed. Portable toilets were placed outside the state Capitol because some of the toilets would not flush.
The massive storm began two days ago in the Gulf of Mexico and first struck the Florida Panhandle.
It was so cold in South Florida that iguanas fell from their perches in trees in suburban Miami. The reptiles became immobile when temperatures dipped below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius).
In Charleston, South Carolina, 5 inches of snow was enough for Chris Monoc’s sons, ages 4 and 2, to go sledding.
“They probably will be teenagers the next time something like this happens,” Monoc said.
Collins reported from Glastonbury, Connecticut. Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, North Carolina, Michelle R. Smith in Providence, Rhode Island, Michael Casey in Boston, and Julio Cortez in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, contributed to this report.