A major winter storm began its frigid assault on the East Coast on Wednesday, draping southern states with levels of snow and ice unseen in decades as forecasters warned that parts of the Northeast soon could face blizzard conditions.

As snow fell as far south as Florida, dire predictions and winter storm warnings stretched north to Maine. The National Weather Service said areas between Virginia Beach and Boston could see up to a foot of snow by Thursday night, with even more possible elsewhere in New England. The governors of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia declared states of emergency, schools were closed across the Southeast and more than 2,000 flights were preemptively canceled ahead of Thursday’s expected onslaught.

The Washington region is expected to miss the worst of the snow, according to the Capital Weather Gang, with forecasts predicting between a dusting to two inches in the metropolitan area. Some points to the east could see up to four inches, while places west of Fairfax and Montgomery could see flurries or nothing at all. But with temperatures plummeting and roads potentially turning icy, schools might open late or close, and commutes could be slowed to a crawl.

Outside the Beltway region, forecasts are calling for heavier conditions, with up to a foot possible in the Norfolk area, prompting Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to declare a state of emergency.

“The bitter cold that continues to plague the commonwealth will be joined by a potentially significant winter storm which will blast Hampton Roads, the Northern Neck, Eastern Shore and other areas of Eastern Virginia with snowfall and blizzard-like conditions in some communities,” McAuliffe said in a statement.

TV reporters and social media users are testing the freezing temperatures with some old tricks. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Snowfall further north of Washington also could be intense, but some officials are more concerned about the storm’s brutal second act, when temperatures are forecast to fall to much as 40 degrees below normal across a wide swath of the Eastern Seaboard, a bitter freeze after several days of already record lows.

Many locations in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast are expected to see record-low temperatures Friday, with highs only reaching the single digits and teens in some places. By Saturday, much of New England could wake up to subzero cold.

Forecasters predicted the storm will turn into a “bomb cyclone,” so-named because it will explosively intensify, bringing potentially heavy snows and gusting winds. Its force also will be responsible for drawing the numbing polar air south in its wake.

Meteorologists issued bleak forecasts Wednesday about what could make its way across the Northeast Corridor. The National Weather Service extended its blizzard warning into Boston, said New England could see up to three inches of snowfall per hour and warned that it would make “travel difficult if not impossible.”

In eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the weather service said it was particularly worried about power outages occurring with arctic air following on Friday and Saturday. Suffolk County in New York was under a blizzard warning Thursday, while New York City was warned to expect potentially more than six inches of snow and “significant travel delays.”

“Confidence in accumulating snowfall has increased for parts of the Northeast as the [center of the storm] is expected to track closer to the coast and intensify rapidly,” the National Weather Service said.

Authorities announced preparations for dangerous conditions, saying they had massive supplies of salt and plows ready to hit the road. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) said he would activate the state’s emergency operations center, while Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) pleaded with people to stay off the roads.

The storm already was wreaking havoc on air travel ahead of its arrival in the Northeast, grounding waves of flights. More than 2,000 flights scheduled for Thursday were halted, most of them through Boston and the three New York-area airports. Airlines bracing for the weather issued waivers for travelers heading through essentially the entire East Coast, allowing people to change their flights without fees.

But before the storm made its way to the highly populated Northeast Corridor, crawling up the coastline much like a hurricane, it brought snow to areas not used to seeing such things — places like the Sunshine State. It wasn’t heavy — for a visitor from Chicago, the snowfall would have registered as a light mist — but there it was, snow falling across Tallahassee, Florida’s capital.

Flakes fell from the sky and coated cars, lawns and sidewalks in a city where the weather had topped 70 degrees just last week. The momentous occasion was summed up by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper, which published a story headlined: “Relive all nine terrifying minutes of the great Tallahassee blizzard of 2018.”

The storm shut down roadways along the Southeast and, in several places, closed schools, giving Floridians used to seeing classes canceled for hurricanes some experience with snow days instead. In Georgia, where some parts of the state saw as much as three inches of snow, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) declared a state of emergency for 28 southeastern counties, warning that the snowfall and freezing rain could melt and then refreeze, “producing additional ice related hazards.”

The Raleigh, N.C., office of the National Weather Service reported that the temperature there dropped to 9 degrees Wednesday morning, tying a record low set on the same date in 1887. Later in the day, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) declared a state of emergency for part of the state and warned about the dangers posed by the plummeting temperatures.

“Those frigid temperatures can be dangerous, particularly for people who may lose power during the storm,” Cooper said during a news briefing. “Also, these colder temperatures will make it harder for first responders and transportation crews.”

Teenagers in Bluffton, S.C., took advantage of the weather, pulling out beach boards and trying to coast along snow-covered roads. Others were making mini-snowmen with the inch or two of powder accumulated on the ground.

As the snow and icy rain turned the parking lot of a Harris Teeter supermarket to slush shortly before noon in James Island, S.C., just across the Intracoastal Waterway from downtown Charleston, some people headed in for supplies. They stocked up on water, hot dogs, bread and milk. Others sojourned out just to enjoy the rare sight of snow in a southern city.

“It’s beautiful,” said Kara Stonecypher, 20, a College of Charleston student, as she strolled the city’s High Battery, along the water. “It changes everything.”

Randy Pelzer, of Charleston, grabbed his cross-country skis and poles, using them to traverse the streets, something he said he had not done since eight inches of snow fell there just days before Christmas in 1989.

“I don’t get to do this often because of where I live,” Pelzer said. “It happens every 30 years.”

Doug Pardue in Charleston, S.C.; Jessica Sparks in Bluffton, S.C.; and Angela Fritz, Jason Samenow and Katie Zezima in Washington contributed to this report.

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