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Washington — A light dusting of snow that caused commuter chaos in the nation’s capital served as 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. Hundreds of accidents left drivers stuck for hours in icy gridlock after efforts to lay salt ahead of the dusting proved ineffective.

“We are very sorry for (our) inadequate response,” District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said. “We should have been out earlier, with more resources.”

For people already scrambling to prepare for up to 2 feet of heavy wet snow, the trouble caused by a mere dusting provided more reason to worry about what the National Weather Service is calling a “potentially crippling winter storm” expected to hit the Mid-Atlantic region starting Friday afternoon and continuing into Sunday. The icy conditions already caused accidents that killed two drivers in North Carolina and one in Tennessee.

“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 city’s 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 Thursday.

States of emergency were declared in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, where road crews were out in force Thursday. Blizzard watches were in effect from Virginia through New Jersey and beyond.

The heaviest snow, up to 2 feet, was forecast for areas west and southwest of the capital. Washington could see 15 to 20 inches, Philadelphia could see 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.

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.

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 airline but include some cities in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia all the way up the coast to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

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.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe warned of travel disruptions and power outages and saying people should “take the threat of this storm seriously.” Crews are treating roads ahead of the weekend storm, but Virginia transportation officials urged drivers to stay home in any case.

Some Maryland road crews got stuck in lengthy backups Wednesday night, slowing their progress, state Department of Transportation spokesman Charlie Gischlar said.

Quentin Norman said his commute home from the gas station he manages in Capitol Heights, Maryland, took an hour instead of the usual 15 minutes. Wednesday night’s mess “kind of took us by surprise,” he said. “Everybody was talking about the weekend.”

Chrissy Wiginton, 35, who works as an editor at the Smithsonian, said her walk to work across the National Mall on Thursday morning raised questions about the city and federal 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.

Air travel

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 airline but include some cities in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia all the way up the coast to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The first flakes

Snow in much of Kentucky and Tennessee led school districts and some universities to cancel classes Wednesday and contributed to at least one traffic death, and officials warned motorists to be cautious of slick roads.

Guard ready in West Virginia

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin mobilized the West Virginia National Guard to assist in the upcoming storm. The National Weather Service says some areas of the state could get up to 2 feet of snow.

Gearing up in Pennsylvania

Mike Dunn, deputy communications director for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, said city trucks would start treating some streets Wednesday night.

“At this point, it is all about being prepared,” he said.

PennDOT mechanics were busy making sure trucks were cleaned and in good repair so all equipment is ready to go whenever the snow starts falling, spokesman Gene Blaum said.

“We’ve used virtually no salt,” so far this season, he said. “But winter isn’t over.”

Mixed impact in New England

The storm’s impact on southern New England remained uncertain Wednesday, but officials were preparing for the worst.

The National Weather Service said there’s a potential for 6 inches of snow or more in the region. High winds and coastal flooding are possible.

The storm is expected to miss northern New England. Meteorologist Tom Hawley of the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, says its path could shift but right now “all indications are that it will not amount to much” in the region.

Anti-abortion march still on

Organizers of the March for Life say their annual anti-abortion rally in Washington will be held Friday, as scheduled.

The rally on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision is one of the largest events on the National Mall. Thousands of abortion opponents gather to listen to speeches before marching to the Supreme Court.

Stocking up

While the snow fell, some people made their way to the grocery store to stock up on needed items.

In Louisville, Kentucky, Adrian Gardner packed gallons of milk, laundry detergent and bags of groceries into his SUV. None of it was for him.

“It’s for my momma,” he said. “I don’t want her to have to come out in this.”

Cary Prince of McLean, Virginia, picked up rock salt at the hardware store, but struck out on snow blower fuel, which was sold out. Still, she was stocked up on the key provision, so all was well.

“I’ve got my wine,” she said.

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