BOSTON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - New England braced on Thursday for a possibly record-setting winter storm, with forecasts of up to 2 feet (60 cm) of snow already causing airlines to cancel thousands of flights and utilities to prepare for power outages.
The storm was blowing in from the Midwest where it began dropping snow on the Chicago area on Thursday afternoon. It was due to bring light snow to the Northeastern United States on Friday morning before ramping up to blizzard conditions by afternoon.
In Boston, which was expected to see some of the heaviest snowfall, Mayor Thomas Menino ordered the city's schools to close on Friday and urged businesses to consider allowing staff to stay home, to reduce the risk of commuters getting stranded.
"We are hardy New Englanders, let me tell you, and used to these types of storms. But I also want to remind everyone to use common sense and stay off the streets of our city. Basically, stay home," Menino told reporters. "Stay put after noontime tomorrow."
City officials up and down the northeastern United States were bracing for the storm, readying fleets of plows and salt trucks to keep streets clear, while airport officials advised travelers to try to reschedule flights ahead of the storm.
The National Weather Service said Boston could get 18 to 24 inches of snow (45 to 60 cm) on Friday and Saturday, its first heavy snowfall in two years. Light snow is expected to begin falling around 7 a.m. EST (1200 GMT) on Friday, with heavier snow and winds gusting as high as 60 to 75 miles per hour (95 to 120 km per hour) as the day progresses.
"It's the afternoon rush-hour time frame into the evening and overnight when the height of the storm will be," said Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Cities from Hartford, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine, expected to see at least a foot of snow.
Airlines have already canceled more than 2,200 flights planned for Friday, according to the website FlightAware.com, with the largest number of cancellations at airports in Newark, New York, Chicago andBoston.
Nearly 500 flights have been canceled for Saturday, according to the flight-tracking site.
Officials at airports across the region warned travelers to expect more delays and cancellations on Friday.
Shelves at many stores were picked clean of food and storm-related supplies such as shovels and snowblowers as residents scrambled to prepare.
Jackie Hooper, a florist from Brighton, Massachusetts, said she had a hard time finding salt to melt ice from the sidewalk outside her home.
Hooper said she had been hired to provide flowers for a wedding on Saturday, but that the storm may derail those plans.
"We've stocked up on flowers, but we don't know what's going to happen with the reception - they may cancel it, they may not," she said. "How sad is that?"
By Thursday afternoon the storm had begun to make its way through the Midwest, with the first traces of snow falling in Chicago.
In New York, forecasts called for 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) of snow. Mayor Michael Bloomberg told reporters he hoped that he hoped the forecasters were "exaggerating," but noted that the city would nonetheless have snow removal crews ready to act.
Peter Judge, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, said power outages were a top worry.
"It being winter, folks losing their power means they're also losing their heat, and if you lose heat during the middle of the storm, you're not going to be able to go out to get to a shelter," he said. (Additional reporting by Daniel Lovering and Tim McLaughlin in Boston, and Colleen Jenkins in North Carolina; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Leslie Gevirtz, Bob Burgdorfer and Lisa Shumaker)