Facing forecasts of dangerous blizzard conditions likely to debilitate the region into next week, Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency starting Friday morning and urged Marylanders to take the storm seriously, as school systems canceled classes before seeing a snowflake.
Snowfall is forecast to start in earnest by the Friday evening commute, and is not expected to let up until as much as 2 feet accumulates some 36 hours later. Wind gusts up to 55 mph and snow accumulation at rates of as much as a few inches per hour are expected to make travel dangerous and nearly impossible until Sunday.
Highway crews were pre-treating roads and readying salt trucks and plows Thursday, but officials acknowledged that their efforts might be futile until the intense storm ends. Residents readied for a long period of captivity, clearing supermarket shelves and buying up shovels.
"Our first and main priority is keeping Marylanders safe," Hogan said at a news conference at the Maryland Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Reisterstown. "I want all Marylanders to know that their state is ready and working together to respond effectively."
Central Maryland is under a blizzard warning from Friday night through early Sunday morning. The designation indicates not just a major snowstorm but also possible white-out conditions and large snow drifts blown by 25-35 mph winds and stronger gusts.
Even without the wind hazards, the snowfall could be historic. Weather forecasting models predict the storm would bring 2 to 3 inches of rain if it were warmer; that much moisture translates to 20 to 30 inches of snow in a typical winter storm. Accumulations of more than 18 inches would make this one of the 10 largest snowfalls recorded in Baltimore.
The storm was sweeping across the Gulf Coast states Thursday, bringing a flurry of lightning strikes and possibly tornadoes before delivering ice and snow to the Southeast. It was forecast to transfer its energy to a newly forming low-pressure system over the Carolinas on Friday, then crawl up the coast, intensifying amid a clash between cold air to its north and west and milder, moist air over the Atlantic.
Hogan's emergency declaration, which gives the governor additional powers and alerts residents to the gravity of a situation, is effective starting at 7 a.m. Friday. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake likewise issued a local state of emergency for the city starting Thursday afternoon, opening the city's emergency operations center and urging residents to prepare.
School districts around the region heeded the warnings. Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Howard County schools are closed Friday, and schools in Carroll County are closing three hours early. The storm is disrupting spring semester move-in at Coppin State University, Towson University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Maryland, College Park.
Hogan and Maryland Transportation Secretary Peter K. Rahn said the state has 2,700 pieces of snow-clearing equipment and 365,000 tons of salt ready. The National Guard and local state troopers were gearing up to potentially respond to stranded motorists or other emergencies.
Baltimore transportation officials said that with a mostly mild and snow-free winter up until this weekend, the city has full stores of salt, with about 11,600 tons on hand.
They are preparing for snow to hit during the Friday evening commute, and once it starts, plowing crews likely won't be able to keep up, officials said. They urged drivers to get where they need to go early — and then stay put.
"If you are out on the road and you get stuck or stranded, it's going to cause a traffic backup, and that puts our plows in a position where we can't clear the roads," said William Johnson, director of the city transportation department.
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said to expect delays and cancellations. By Thursday afternoon, a majority of 11 airlines at BWI offered to waive fees for travelers who want to reschedule flights and avoid the snow, Dean said.
The Maryland Transit Administration will operate its MARC commuter trains and its commuter buses on a modified schedule Friday. It canceled Penn line rail service for Saturday.
State police and the highway administration said snow emergency plans will go into effect at noon Friday, meaning vehicles traveling on snow emergency routes should be equipped with chains, snow tires or all-season radials. Also, police can arrange for vehicles abandoned in the road or on the shoulder to be towed. Parking on snow emergency routes will be restricted.
With forecasts changing little over the past day or two — and after a burst of snow Wednesday night that led to a commuting nightmare in the Washington area — many around the region took advantage of the notice and stocked up on food and supplies.
"It was like it was the end of the world" at many stores Wednesday night, said Phyllis Franks, whose company performs inventory counts at local grocery stores across the region.
At the Shoppers grocery store in South Baltimore where she was working Thursday morning, staff had just restocked bread shelves that were emptied the previous night, and shoppers had also bought most of the milk, chicken and ground beef.
"You have to be careful, but you don't have to go crazy," she said.
Hope Morgan, 36, who lives in Baltimore, stopped by the Shoppers store to stock up on whatever "comfort food" she could find, including chicken noodle soup, tomato soup to have with shrimp, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
She said she's excited for snow, but she is concerned about getting to the hospital to check on her husband, who had surgery this week. She's hoping he will be released before the storm.
"I think it's pretty, as long as I don't have to drive in it," she said.
At Falkenhan's Hardware in Hampden, owner Deborah Falkenhan was ringing up a steady stream of customers buying ice melt and shovels on Thursday morning.
Already, Falkenhan said, she had sold out of about half of the 300 shovels and 240 20-pound bags of ice melt she had in the store. A pallet of four dozen 50-pound bags of ice melt was already gone.
"I probably will run out, to be honest," she said. "It's usually last minute, but people are buying ahead of time."
Falkenhan said she plans to keep the hardware store open Saturday despite the storm, as most employees live in the neighborhood.
Many residents were preparing to be stranded for a few days.
Rick Ullman of Locust Point said he was supposed to work this weekend but took "an emergency vacation," fearing he would get stuck in the snow. He said he's not concerned about the storm, just about how difficult it would be to find a parking space during it.
In past storms, Ullman said, snow plows have sealed off cars behind several feet of snow in his neighborhood. After large snowfalls, he said it's common to see people walking in the street.
"I have to get a parking spot where I can leave it for three days," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Tim Prudente contributed to this article.