Airlines canceled hundreds of Sunday flights in the Northeast corridor, with more likely to come as the storm intensifies.
Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina declared states of emergency early Sunday or Saturday night. As North Carolina road crews tried to clear snowy and icy highways, Mid-Atlantic officials spent Christmas Day preparing for up to a foot of snow, plunging temperatures and high winds.
"Our concern is tomorrow it's going to get significantly colder," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell told The Weather Channel on Saturday evening. "Winds with gusts up to 45 miles per hour will cause blowing snow and that's going to cause the worst of it ... and we're urging extreme caution in travel. Try to get home early and if you don't have to travel don't go."
Continental Airlines canceled 250 Sunday departures from Newark Liberty International Airport outside New York City. United Airlines announced late Saturday that it had canceled dozens of Sunday departures from Newark, Philadelphia, New York's LaGuardia and JFK, Boston and other airports. AirTran also canceled flights, as did Southwest Airlines, mostly in or out of Washington Dulles, Baltimore and Newark.
Southwest spokesman Brad Hawkins said most of the cancellations were for the afternoon, and that flights in New York and Boston would also likely to be affected. More decisions will be made Sunday morning.
Most carriers were waiving fees for one-time changes in affected areas and urging passengers to make changes through their websites.
The monster storm is the result of a low pressure system that will intensify off the North Carolina coast on Sunday morning and strengthen into a major storm as it moves northeast, according to the National Weather Service.
A blizzard warning was issued for New York City for Sunday and Monday, with a forecast of 11 to 16 inches of snow and strong winds that will reduce visibility to near zero at times. As much as 18 inches could fall on the New Jersey shore with wind gusts over 40 mph. A blizzard warning was also in effect for Rhode Island and most of eastern Massachusetts including Boston, with forecasters predicting 15 to 20 inches of snow from noon Sunday to 6 p.m. Monday. A blizzard warning is issued when snow is accompanied by sustained winds or gusts over 35 mph.
Early Sunday, winter storm warnings covered northern Georgia, the Carolinas, Washington, Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and the eastern sections of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Winter weather advisories were in effect for eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, West Virginia and northwest Virginia.
The system gave the Carolinas its first white Christmas in decades. Columbia, S.C., had its first significant Christmas snow since weather records were first kept in 1887.
In Asheville, N.C., the Weather Service said about an inch of snow was falling an hour Saturday. As much as 10 inches could fall by Sunday morning, which would break the previous Christmas Day record of 5.4 inches set in 1969.
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton declared a state of emergency Saturday.
The North Carolina Highway Patrol said Saturday evening that most of the roads in and around Asheville were either covered or partially covered with snow and ice. Emergency management spokeswoman Julia Jarema said troopers in the two dozen westernmost counties answered 350 calls in 18 hours Saturday. Most were wrecks.
Lance Cpl. Bill Rhyne, the Upstate spokesman for the South Carolina Highway Patrol, said late Saturday that snow was starting to cover roads but that there were fewer accidents than there would be on a normal night.
"Everybody's at home," he said. "It's Christmas. They're heeding the warnings and staying off the roads."
In Nashville, some travelers who expected a smooth trip on Christmas got a rude surprise.
"We were hoping this was going to be a good day to travel," said Heather Bansmer, 36, of Bellingham, Wash.
She and her husband, Shawn Breeding, 40, had planned to return home on separate flights after a visit to Breeding's family in Bowling Green, Ky. But Breeding's flight through Atlanta got canceled.
The couple was planning to spend much of Christmas Day in separate airports.
"A white Christmas is not so welcome," Breeding said, as the couple stood in the lobby of the Nashville airport with their luggage in a cart.
In Pensacola, Fla., Jena Passut faced a quandary. The 36-year-old magazine writer drove with her husband and two kids from Fairfax, Va., to visit relatives. On Saturday afternoon she worried about how to get back home amid the snow.
"Should we leave on Christmas night? My kids are normally good travelers, but if it's going to take us twice as long, it's going to be hell," she said. "I like a white Christmas as much as anyone, but I don't want to drive in it."
In Washington, transportation department spokeswoman Karyn LeBlanc said a few crews would be pre-treating roads Saturday night if necessary. About 200 pieces of equipment will be deployed Sunday in anticipation of snow.
To the north, Delaware and Philadelphia braced for up to a foot of snow predicted to fall from Sunday into Monday and authorities urged people to avoid traveling if possible.
Hundreds of flights, many through Atlanta, had already been canceled Saturday. Only a few hundred people milled about the cavernous terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, many of them recent arrivals from international flights. Passengers were notified Friday when flights were pre-emptively canceled, so most didn't bother to show up. Many chairs were empty, restaurants too.
Some couldn't help but chuckle that the flights were nixed long before the first raindrop or snowflake had fallen. Wet snow didn't begin falling in Atlanta until late Saturday afternoon.
"They canceled hundreds of flights and there hasn't even been a drop of rain," said Stephanie Palmer, who was killing time with her friend Ibrahima Soumano as he awaited a flight to Mali. "This doesn't make sense."
Southern cities saw varying amounts of snow, depending on whether they were in the storm's path.
The Nashville area had an inch or so of snow Christmas eve. There was also snow in northern Alabama.
By Saturday morning, 4 to 5 inches of snow had fallen over several hours in Bowling Green, Ky., according to the Weather Service. Louisville had about an inch.
The Air Transport Association was expecting 44.3 million people on U.S. flights between Dec. 16 and Jan. 5 - up 3 percent over the same period a year ago but still below pre-recession travel volume. The average ticket price was $421, up by 5 percent.
The AAA predicted overall holiday travel to rise about 3 percent this year, with more than 92 million people planning to go more than 50 miles by Jan. 2. More than 90 percent said they would be driving.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jessica Gresko in Washington; Page Ivey in Columbia; Karen Hawkins in Chicago; Warren Levinson and Verena Dobnik in New York City; David Goodman in Detroit; Eileen Sullivan and Samantha Bomkamp in Washington; Michelle Price in Phoenix; Dylan Lovan in Louisville; Leonard Pallats and Greg Bluestein in Atlanta; and Mark Pratt in Boston.