Nor’easter forming off the East Coast predicted to bring blizzard conditions

(CNN) — The new year is kicking off with a one-two weather punch — a full-blown nor’easter, followed by the coldest air of the season that will last through at least the middle of next week.

The nor’easter, forming off the East Coast of the United States, is expected to bring blizzard conditions by Thursday night to Long Island, Cape Cod, Massachusetts’ South and North Shore, plus some communities along Maine’s coast.

“Mother Nature has come to wish us happy new year,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday afternoon.

About one third of the nation — approximately 100 million people in 22 states — is in the path of the storm, which is expected to be at its fiercest between 8 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. Friday, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said.

A nor’easter, according to the National Weather Service, is “a cyclonic storm that moves along the east coast of North America. It’s called ‘nor’easter’ because the winds over coastal areas blow from a northeasterly direction.”

The complicated storm system “will raise havoc” this week, dumping a foot of snow and spreading subzero wind chills across parts of the region, the NWS said.

“Falling and blowing snow with strong winds and poor visibilities are likely,” the Weather Service said. “This will lead to whiteout conditions making travel extremely dangerous. Do not travel.”

Across the country, the nasty weather has snarled travel plans for many. About 2,200 flights had been canceled as of 5 p.m. Thursday, reports FlightAware.com, which tracks cancellations due to weather and mechanical problems.

The most affected airport is Chicago’s O’Hare, with more than 650 cancellations in and out and about the same number of delays. Newark’s Liberty International Airport, New York’s LaGuardia and Cleveland’s Hopkins also are among the most affected.

Many airlines are allowing passengers to make fee-free itinerary changes for destinations expected to be affected by winter storms. Delta, American, US Airways, United, Southwest/AirTran and JetBlue have all posted weather advisories on their websites.

Here’s a breakdown on what to expect where:

New York and Long Island

As of Thursday afternoon, New York City was under a winter storm warning, as were many other densely populated areas in seven other states.

The city of 8 million people could get 9 inches of snow, subzero wind chills and turbulent winds, forecasters said.

New York City is expecting to see six to 12 inches of snow overnight, with more possible on Long Island, where Nassau and Suffolk counties will be under a blizzard warning from 6 p.m. Thursday until 1 p.m. Friday, with predictions of 8 to 10 inches of snow, wind chills as low as 10 below zero and sustained winds of at least 35 mph.

Bitter cold will follow, with temperatures in the single digits by Saturday morning.

Upstate, the capital city of Albany could get buried under 14 inches of snow, with wind chills of 15 to 25 below zero, the National Weather Service said.

Cuomo declared a state of emergency for all of New York shortly after 3:45 p.m. Thursday, one of several steps taken to try to minimize the wild wintry weather’s toll.

Among them is shutting down parts of Interstate 84, an east-west highway going from Connecticut from Pennsylvania, to commercial vehicles late Thursday afternoon, with nearby I-87 south of Albany closing down at midnight.

That’s the same time the Long Island Expressway — in a different part of the state — will close to traffic at the border between Nassau County and the Queens borough of New York. The hope is to reopen all these roads around 5 a.m., though that timing is very much subject to change.

“We’ll make sure no one is in a state of danger on those roads,” said Cuomo.

Massachusetts and Connecticut

By Friday night, Boston should be covered by 10 to 18 inches of snow — about twice the amount forecast just one day ago — and shivering in temperatures as low as 6 degrees below zero.

Citing likely “near blizzard” conditions Thursday night into late Friday morning, the state’s emergency management agency warned that 1 to 2 feet of fluffy, drifting snow could accumulate in places and that there could be moderate coastal flooding.

The forecast was so bad for Boston that the city canceled school for Friday two days in advance.

“I guess Mother Nature wanted to give me one more gift,” Mayor Thomas Menino told reporters Thursday in one of his last days in the job he has held since 1993.

“Take precautions and take public transportation and take care of one another,” he urged. But, he added, the city was doing its part, with 700 pieces of equipment on city streets. “Our team is ready,” he said.

The combination of extreme cold, snow and strong winds had officials at homeless shelters preparing.

“Our main emphasis is getting people inside, where it is safer and warmer,” said Jennifer Harris, a spokeswoman for the Pine Street Inn shelter system in Boston, where a snow emergency has been declared. “Pine Street Inn is making sure to have extra staff and food and water. We are geared up to provide to a greater number of people.”

Blizzard warnings haven’t been issued for Boston itself, but are in effect for parts of nearby Essex and Plymouth counties — including the cities of Gloucester and Brockton — as well as all of Cape Cod.

Wind chills in parts of Connecticut are expected to range from -5 to -20 degrees Thursday night and Friday; the National Weather Service issued winter storm warnings for most of the state through Friday morning.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy urged residents to take it slow and give themselves extra time for their commutes Thursday and Friday. “I am also asking that you avoid travel during the height of the storm Thursday night,” he said in a prepared statement.

Chicago and points beyond

Seven to 11 inches of snow were possible Thursday in Chicago, according to the National Weather Service. Windy City residents will feel frigid temps — wind chills during the day Friday will creep down to minus 12 — and emergency director Gary Schenkel said more snow is possible later in the week.

Though snow in Chicago in the winter is a common event, it “can still wreak havoc on daily routines,” he noted.

Next week could be no better for some U.S. residents.

A new shot of colder air will start to move into the northern Midwest by Saturday and will dive south Monday and Tuesday, carrying zero-degree cold as far south as Nashville. “That’s the coldest air we’ve seen that far south in several years,” said Hennen, the CNN meteorologist.

The cold air will kick off a new storm Sunday into Monday that could affect a number of high-profile NFL playoff games this weekend.

In Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers will give a cold welcome to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, when temperatures could bottom out at -17.

But it will be relatively balmy Sunday in Cincinnati, where snow and rain are possible when the city’s Bengals host the San Diego Chargers in another NFL playoff matchup.

Of course, while the players might not have a choice, fans don’t have to brave the cold for either game. The big worries are for those who travel in the coming days. Authorities in New York, for example, say they may shut the Long Island Expressway if whiteout conditions make driving along the east-west highway too perilous.

Kevin Willims isn’t taking any chances, nor is he predicting a world-ending storm. The New Yorker said that he plans to sit tight and let Mother Nature do her thing.

“There’s not much you can do,” Willims said. “When it’s snowing and these streets lock up, there’s really nowhere you can go, so it’s best to just stay in.”

CNN’s Marnie Hunter, Joe Sutton, Holly Yan, Lorenzo Ferrigno, Chris Boyette and Dave Alsup contributed to this report.

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