By Victoria Cavaliere and Ian Simpson
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first major winter storm of 2014 bore down on the northeastern United States on Thursday with heavy snow, Arctic temperatures and strong winds just as many people were returning from holiday breaks.
The double-barreled storm system stretching from the lower Mississippi Valley to the Atlantic coast could dump more than 12 inches of snow in some areas, especially southern New England, by Friday morning, the National Weather Service said.
Snow was falling across much of the northeastern United States by Thursday morning, though the serious accumulation was expected to begin after sunset and continue overnight, said Kim Buttrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.
"The real action is going to get cranked up this evening and during the overnight hours. We'll have heavy snow, windy conditions, reduced visibilities," Buttrick said, adding that dangerous cold would continue into Friday.
The storm is expected to snarl traffic on the I-95 highway corridor between New York and Boston, the weather service said. At the southern edge of the storm, Washington is expected to receive less than one inch of snow.
The storm will provide an early challenge to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected on promises of enacting a progressive agenda. Problems from digging out from snowstorms have been political havoc for mayors in the United States' biggest city for decades.
"I think he can pull it off. He seems like a hands-on person who can identify with what people in these communities are going through," said Wayne Jenkins, 40, who works at a senior center in the New York borough of Brooklyn.
The powerful storm forced about 1,123 U.S. flights to be canceled and about 1,567 delayed, with the worst-affected airports Chicago's O'Hare International and Newark's Liberty International Airport, according to FlightAware, a website which tracks air travel.
More than 94 million people were estimated to be traveling during the holiday season through January 1, the automotive group AAA said, although many people may not be planning to head home until later this week or over the weekend.
In Boston, public schools were told to close on Friday, extending students' holiday break by a day.
"What a New Year's gift, to receive one last snowstorm as mayor," said Mayor Thomas Menino, whose 20-year run as the city's top executive will end on Monday.
The weather service said the mass of Arctic air would drop temperatures from 20 to 30 degrees below normal, with record lows possible on Friday.
The low temperature in the contiguous United States on Wednesday was -43 Fahrenheit (-42 Celsius) at Embarrass, Minnesota, the weather service said.
While most New York-area schools were open on Thursday, some parents were bracing for the possibility their children would be home on Friday.
"It's tough with these storms because I end up using days off that I don't want to take," said Kristen Carson, who had taken the train into Manhattan from her home in suburban Montclair, New Jersey. "After the holiday, it's really kind of a pinch."
(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Nick Zieminski)