By Victoria Cavaliere and Scott Malone
NEW YORK/BOSTON (Reuters) - The first major winter storm of 2014 bore down on the northeastern United States on Thursday with heavy snow, Arctic temperatures and strong winds that snarled travel just as many people were returning from holiday breaks.
The wide storm system stretches from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic coast, with parts of New England including Boston bracing for as much as 14 inches (36 cm) of snow by Friday morning. Some cities along the storm's southern edge expect only minimal snowfall.
Snow was falling across much of the northeastern United States by midday Thursday, though the serious accumulation was expected to begin after sunset and continue overnight, said Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.
"The real action is going to get cranked up this evening and during the overnight hours. We'll have heavy snow, windy conditions, reduced visibilities," Buttrick said, adding that dangerous cold would continue into Friday.
Forecast snowfall varied widely, with Washington expected to see under an inch (2 cm), Philadelphia 4 to 6 inches (10-15 cm), New York 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm), Hartford 6 to 10 inches (15-25 cm) and Boston 8 to 14 inches (20-36 cm).
The storm is expected to snarl traffic on the I-95 highway corridor between New York and Boston, the weather service said. Coastal flooding was forecast along low-lying parts of New England and some waterfront highways in Massachusetts were closed by midday on Thursday due to high waters.
The storm will provide an early challenge to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected on promises of enacting a progressive agenda. Problems from digging out from snowstorms have been political havoc for mayors in the United States' biggest city for decades.
"I think he can pull it off. He seems like a hands-on person who can identify with what people in these communities are going through," said Wayne Jenkins, 40, who works at a senior center in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
The powerful storm forced about 1,569 U.S. flights to be canceled and about 2,924 delayed, with the worst-affected airports Chicago's O'Hare International, Newark's Liberty International Airport and Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, according to FlightAware, a website which tracks air travel.
Officials with Boston's Logan International Airport said they expected airlines to scale back operations during the storm, with the last departure expected at roughly 8:30 p.m. ET (0130 GMT).
In Boston, public schools were told to close on Friday, extending students' holiday break by a day.
'DANGEROUS' COLD EXPECTED
The weather service said the mass of Arctic air would drop temperatures to levels 20 to 30 degrees below normal, with record lows possible on Friday.
"Temperatures are expected to plummet tonight and tomorrow with wind chills dropping as low as 25 degrees below zero (F/-32 C)," said Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. "That is a very dangerous set of circumstances."
The low temperature in the contiguous United States on Wednesday was -43 Fahrenheit (-42 Celsius) at Embarrass, Minnesota, the weather service said.
Slippery road conditions made driving a hazard in many storm-hit areas, with police reporting multiple traffic accidents across the region.
Paul Brown, a 53-year-old construction manager from the Chicago area, said he broke from his usual routine and took the train into work to avoid a dangerous drive.
"Sometimes, I wonder if they have a death wish," he said of area drivers. "Down south, you get an inch of snow and it paralyzes the whole town. Here, people get in the left lane and just drive."
While most New York-area schools were open on Thursday, some parents were bracing for the possibility their children would be home on Friday.
"It's tough with these storms because I end up using days off that I don't want to take," said Kristen Carson, who had taken the train into Manhattan from her home in suburban Montclair, New Jersey. "After the holiday, it's really kind of a pinch." (Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Andrew Hay)