NEW YORK - A major storm forced New York to impose driving bans and halt public transport late Monday, as snowfall pounded the northeastern United States affecting tens of millions of people.
Heavy snowfall, combined with powerful wind and even thunderstorms is expected to dump two to three feet (up to a meter) of snow in New York, but with New England worst affected.
More than 7,100 flights were cancelled on Monday and Tuesday, as Manhattan was abandoned by panicked commuters rushing home early, leaving behind eerily quiet snowy streets.
New York shut its transit system at 11pm, made non-emergency road travel a criminal offence in 13 counties and closed tunnels and bridges connecting Manhattan to New Jersey.
"It could be a matter of life and death, and that's not being overly dramatic, so caution is required," New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo warned.
The subway last closed for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which killed more than 200 people and caused months-long power cuts.
States of emergency were declared in states across the affected region as residents rushed to supermarkets to stockpile food.
"I have nothing to eat, I need some food. Who knows if tomorrow I'm going to leave my house," said boutique worker Rosa Ramirez, queuing outside an upmarket Whole Foods store in Manhattan.
"What I do not know is how long I'll have to wait," she said, as snow and icy wind gusted through the queue of shoppers.
New York's famed Broadway and top music venues - including Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera - shelved performances. NBA games were also postponed.
The worst snow was expected to fall overnight, which combined with dangerous winds of up to 70 miles (112 kilometers) an hour will paralyse swaths of the northeast US coast.
As well as blizzard warnings, flood warnings are also in effect, with officials warning against power outages and falling trees.
Cuomo called out several hundred National Guard for New York and Long Island, which juts out into the Atlantic.
At 11pm he announced the travel ban on all roads in 13 counties had become into effect and that the city's MTA public transit had been suspended until further notice.
Those caught out on the roads after the cut-off point would be liable for fines, Cuomo said.
Officials said virtually all flights at New York's LaGuardia airport would be cancelled Tuesday and that John F. Kennedy International Airport would also see significant cancellations.
Boston's Logan international airport will see no flights from Monday evening until Wednesday afternoon.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said it would be "most likely to be one of the largest blizzards in the history of New York City." Weather reports later indicated snowfall would likely fall short of the city's record 26.9 inches (68 centimeters) following a 16-hour storm in February 2006.
United Nations closes
"Recognize this as an emergency," de Blasio cautioned. "You can't underestimate this storm. It's not a typical storm, its going to pack a real punch." Schools will be closed on Tuesday and scheduled examinations cancelled.
The United Nations closed its headquarters early and was to remain shut, forcing the cancellation on Tuesday of an important event to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust.
Meteorologists said the storm would bring crippling conditions and warned that 28 million people were in the possible blizzard zone.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a probable Republican candidate for the White House in 2016, said state offices would be closed for non-essential staff.
"We've had Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy. For better or for worse, we know how to deal with these situations," he said.
De Blasio said New York had deployed more than 1,800 snow plows, and would have 40 per cent more ambulances and 500 more fire fighters on duty to cope with the crisis.