WASHINGTON — Life in the nation's capital ground to a halt Friday as steady snow fell, the beginning of a storm that forecasters said could be the biggest in modern history.
A record 2 ½ feet or more was predicted for Washington, where snow was falling heavily by evening, and forecasters warned that blizzard conditions were on the way. Big amounts of snow were expected elsewhere throughout the mid-Atlantic region, and authorities already blamed the storm for hundreds of accidents and two deaths in Virginia.
A few thousand people in West Virginia lost electricity because of the storm, and a hospital fire in Washington sent about three dozen patients scurrying from their rooms to safety in a basement. The blaze started when a snow plow truck caught fire near the building, but no injuries were reported.
The region's second snowstorm in less than two months could be "extremely dangerous," the National Weather Service said. Heavy, wet snow and strong winds threatened to clog roads and paralyze the region's transportation and retail.
Airlines canceled flights, schools closed and the federal government sent workers home, where they could be stuck for several days in a region ill-equipped to deal with so much snow. Some area hospitals asked people with four-wheel-drive vehicles to volunteer to pick up doctors and nurses to take them to work.
Amtrak stopped most trains heading south from Washington.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has been in office less than a month, declared his second snow emergency, authorizing state agencies to assist local governments.
Blizzard warnings were also in effect for much of Delaware and southern New Jersey from Friday afternoon to tonight, with strong winds and drifting snow.
Philadelphia could get about a foot of snow, and the Pittsburgh area could get up to 20 inches.
The biggest snowfall for the Washington-Baltimore area is believed to have occurred in 1772, before official records were kept, when as much as 3 feet fell in the area, an epic event George Washington and Thomas Jefferson mentioned in their diaries.