A winter storm dumping rare ice and snow from Florida to North Carolina is expected to strengthen rapidly Wednesday night as it pushes up the Eastern Seaboard, turning into a violent "bomb cyclone" that could produce blizzard conditions and hurricane-like winds in eastern New England and up to two feet of snow in parts of Maine.
Winter weather watches and warnings were in place Wednesday in a continuous 1,300-mile stretch from northern Florida to northern Maine. LaGuardia Airport in New York reported in a late-afternoon tweet that more than 90% of its flights Thursday will be canceled due to the storm forecast.
In Boston, where forecasters predicted 10 to 16 inches of snow, Mayor Marty Walsh announced that public schools would be closed on Thursday.
The storm caps a week of brutal cold across the nation that has left at least 16 people dead.
As the storm gripped the East Coast, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency in their states through Friday.
In the Southeast, winter storm warnings were issued in such usually mild locations as Tallahassee, Savannah, Ga., Hilton Head and Charleston, S.C., North Carolina's Outer Banks and Wilmington, N.C.
Those warnings for northern Florida were also the first in almost four years.
Snow was reported in Tallahassee on Wednesday for the first time in 28 years, according to Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Seidel.
Sharon Rosenberg, 35, a lifelong Tallahassee resident, and her children caught snowflakes on their tongues and made small snowballs.
The National Weather Service also warned of dangerous driving conditions across the region from icy roads and low visibility.
In Florida, authorities on Wednesday shut down a stretch of Interstate 10 east of Tallahassee because of icy conditions.
In Savannah, Mayor Eddie DeLoach urged residents to keep off the roads. City officials, bracing for a rare bout of ice and up to three inches of snow, filled dump trucks with sand to spread on major streets.
At about 10 p.m. ET, a baggage car and two sleeper cars on an Amtrak passenger train derailed, but stayed upright near the Savannah station, according to a railroad spokesperson. The Atlanta Journal Constitution quoted Silver Meteor passenger Joel Potischman, who said cold weather caused a frozen switch and the train cars derailed when Amtrak tried to overshoot the switch and back into the station. There were no injuries, according to Amtrak.
Both the Charleston and the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airports closed on Wednesday because of snow and ice.
Snow fell in Charleston and in Savannah, Ga., on Wednesday for the first time since 2010.
William Shaw, a Savannah native, used baby steps to shuffle along a frozen road from his home to the post office.
“It almost seems the town is deserted just like in the last hurricane,” said Shaw, 65.
The Storm Prediction Center also announced an unusual warning for “heavy freezing rain” for the coast of South Carolina on Wednesday.
“The streets will be slick,” DeLoach said as the storm closed in. “We could have some serious issues for folks who aren’t used to driving in this kind of weather.”
In South Carolina, Sgt. Bob Beres, a Highway patrol community relations officer, was on an icy stretch of I-26 in Charleston videotaping a spot for his Twitter feed warning drivers to stay off the road when a van slid off the road nearby into a ditch. "Let me go right now to check on that van," he said to close out his report.
In northern Florida, at least five districts canceled school. In Tallahassee, students were supposed to return from winter break but got another day thanks to the weather.
Snow and cold linger across U.S.
In central Florida, the state’s largest theme parks announced that water attractions such as Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, Universal Orlando’s Volcano Bay and SeaWorld’s Aquatica were closed Wednesday because of the cold snap.
Wind chill advisories were in place as far south as Boca Raton, Fla., where wind chills could dip into the 30s overnight.
The North Carolina Zoo offered half-priced admission, giving visitors a rare chance to see polar bears frolic in their kind of weather.
The brutal weather, fed by punishing cold air sweeping in from Canada, put much of the country in a deep freeze. Wind chill advisories and freeze warnings were in effect from South Texas to Canada and from Montana through New England.
Indianapolis on Tuesday tied a record low of -12 degrees for Jan. 2 set in 1887, leading Indianapolis Public Schools to cancel classes.
In the Chicago-area, wind chills were expected from -35 to -20 degrees as forecasters warned of frostbite and hypothermia risks and urged residents to take precautions.
Along the East Coast, the "bomb cyclone," formed by a process known as bombogenesis, was expected to intensify off New England on Thursday and could generate blizzard conditions from Connecticut to Maine. Winds on Cape Cod could range from 50 to 60 mph or more.
Blizzard warnings were also in effect along coastal areas of North Carolina and Virginia, including Norfolk. This is only the second time since the 1980s that Norfolk has been under a blizzard warning.
Travel in the Norfolk area Thursday was predicted to be "very dangerous to impossible," the weather service said.
“It’s sort of akin to a hurricane traveling up the coast,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at the private firm Weather.US.
AccuWeather senior meteorologist Alex Sosnowski notes that as the pressure inside the storm system plunges rapidly during bombogenesis, the surrounding air rushes in at high speed and can cause property damage, falling trees and power outages.
"Storms that undergo bombogenesis are among the most violent weather systems that affect a broad area," Sosnowski says.
Aside from bone-chilling temperatures and ferocious winds, the system was expected to leave Baltimore and Washington largely unscathed, with little or no snow expected. However, Philadelphia should see 1-3 inches and 3-6 inches is possible in New York City.
In New York, a hazardous travel advisory was issued for Thursday by the city's emergency management office.
After the storm roars through, the Northeast will see brutal, record-challenging cold on Friday and Saturday, and high temperatures will be only in the single digits or teens.
Contributing: The Associated Press