By Elizabeth Dilts and Scott Malone
NEW YORK/BOSTON (Reuters) - The governors of New York and New Jersey declared a state of emergency and urged residents to stay indoors as a major storm hit the northeastern United States on Thursday, bringing heavy snow and delaying or canceling thousands of flights.
The first major winter storm of 2014 brought dangerously low temperatures and strong winds from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic coast, with parts of New England including Boston bracing for as much as 14 inches of snow by Friday morning.
"As this winter storm unfolds, bringing heavy snow and high winds to many parts of the state, I strongly urge all New Yorkers to exercise caution, avoid travel and stay indoors," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
Amid flight cancellations that hit just as many travelers were returning from holiday breaks, officials at Boston's Logan International Airport warned that takeoffs would likely end at about 8:30 p.m. (0130 GMT) and officials at New York area airports set up cots for potential stranded travelers.
The snowfall was expected to intensify after sunset, with the heaviest accumulation coming overnight. Some cities along the storm's southern edge expect only minimal snowfall.
Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie both ordered state offices closed on Friday for non-essential employees, saying they expected the worst to hit between late Thursday and early Friday morning.
"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," said Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.
DE BLASIO'S BIG TEST
The storm posed the first major challenge to the administration of New York's new mayor, Bill de Blasio. Problems from digging out from snowstorms have been political havoc for mayors in the United States' biggest city for decades.
After his first emergency management meeting, De Blasio urged New Yorkers to get off the streets as soon as possible and let snow crews do their work.
"This is the first of many times I will say please stay indoors. Stay out of your cars. If you don't need to go out, please don't go out," he said.
The powerful storm forced about 1,807 U.S. flights to be canceled and about 4,536 delayed, with Chicago's O'Hare International and Newark's Liberty International Airport the worst-affected airports, according to FlightAware, a website that tracks air travel.
New York's three major airports were preparing to accommodate stranded travelers whose flights were canceled.
"We have a few hundred cots at each of the airports should you decide to become an overnight guest," said Thomas Bosco, an official with the Port Authority of New York and Jersey, at New York's LaGuardia Airport. The authority also runs Newark and John F. Kennedy International Airport.
One traveler, 23-year-old Ruben Raskin of San Jose, California, who was in the area visiting his girlfriend, worried that his Friday flight out of Logan could be delayed or canceled.
"It kind of reminds me why I moved to San Jose after going to college out here," Raskin said.
Conditions in Boston were bad enough by afternoon that the "Frozen Fenway" winter carnival, featuring sledding and college ice-hockey at the baseball stadium where the Red Sox play, was canceled for Thursday and Friday.
TEMPERATURES TO PLUMMET
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 Fahrenheit (-32 Celsius)," said Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. "That is a very dangerous set of circumstances."
The low temperature in the contiguous United States on Wednesday was -47 Fahrenheit (-43 Celsius), reached in Van Buren, Maine, and tied in Babbitt and Embarrass, Minnesota, the weather service said.
Patrick told non-essential state workers to head home at 3 p.m. ET (2000 GMT) as did his counterparts in neighboring Connecticut. Both encouraged private-sector employers to consider releasing their staff early.
Forecast snowfall varied widely, with Washington expected to see under an inch, Philadelphia and New York 4 to 8 inches, Hartford 6 to 10 inches and Boston 8 to 14 inches.
But even before the worst of the storm hit slippery road conditions made driving a hazard in many storm-hit areas.
In Cleveland, Ohio, Chris Behm spent an hour trying to reach the vocational training center for developmentally disabled people where he works before calling the commute off and urging his 19 employees to stay home.
"It was terrible on all of the roads and there is more weather on its way," Behm said. "It just wasn't worth it to open and possibly kill someone."
Officials in Boston and Providence said schools would be closed on Friday, and in other districts throughout the region, 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 Victoria Cavaliere, Marina Lopes and Scott DiSavino in New York, Daniel Lovering in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ian Simpson in Washington, Kim Palmer in Cleveland and Mary Wisniewski in Chicago; Editing by Ken Wills)