BOSTON — Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency Friday and banned travel on roads as of 4 p.m. as a blizzard that could bring nearly 3 feet of snow to the region began to intensify.
As the storm gains strength, it will bring "extremely dangerous conditions" with bands of snow dropping up to 2 to 3 inches per hour at the height of the blizzard, Patrick said.
The governor signed an executive order imposing the statewide travel ban, believed to be the first of its kind since the blizzard of 1978. The order bans all motor vehicle traffic until it is lifted, but there will be a number of exceptions, including for public works and public safety employees, utility workers and members of the news media.
"I have declared a state of emergency effective of noon today," Patrick said during a midday briefing Friday at the state's emergency management headquarters. The travel ban was not to punish drivers but "to emphasize how important it is that non-essential travel" be prohibited to give emergency workers and plowing crews access to the roads.
He said those crews are at the ready, including 2,000 utility crews to deal with expected power outages.
Violating the travel ban could bring a $500 fine or up to a year in jail, though officials said they doubted such enforcement would be necessary.
Boston and much of eastern Massachusetts are under a blizzard warning until 1 p.m. Saturday. A flood warning was going into effect at 8 p.m. Friday until noon Saturday for the state's east-facing coastline.
A steady, light snow began falling at midmorning in Boston, where a snow emergency and parking ban was set to take effect at noon.
"This is a storm of major proportions," Mayor Thomas Menino said Friday. "Stay off the roads. Stay home."
Stores throughout the state were packed with people buying food, shovels, batteries and other storm supplies.
At a Stop & Shop supermarket in Whitman, bread, milk and bundles of firewood were nearly gone by 9:30 a.m. Friday. Yet some shoppers were still skeptical that the storm would be as huge as predicted.
"I just want to see if it's going to really happen," said Jessica Zinkevicz, 31, a certified nursing assistant from East Bridgewater who went to Stop & Shop to stock up on Diet Snapple, water and frozen vegetables.
"I'm just taking it as it comes," she said. "Once it starts coming down hard, then I might start panicking."
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority planned to shut down all service — including subways, commuter trains and buses — after 3:30 p.m. Commuters who use public transportation in the morning were being told to plan carefully so as not to get stranded after the T suspends operations. State transportation officials expect service to be up and running again by Monday morning.
Boston's Logan International Airport said it would try to stay open during the storm but airlines had already canceled many flights through Saturday.
Predictions of 2 feet of snow or more could make the storm one of the biggest in recorded history, but an even greater concern than the snow could be the possibility of a damaging coastal storm surge.
The National Weather Service was warning of moderate to major coastal flooding at high tide on Saturday morning, with a 2- to 3-foot storm surge that could damage shorefront homes, cause beach erosion and make some coastal roads temporarily impassable.
Revere, Scituate, Sandwich Harbor and the east coast of Nantucket were among the areas that could be vulnerable to major flooding, according to the weather service.
Paul Czapienski, owner of Foster Farrar & Co. True Value hardware store in Northampton, said business has been brisk Friday, but there was no frenzied or panic buying.
"Being in a hardware store, unfortunately we're in this situation where the worse the weather is, the better off we are," said Czapienski. "It's sad, but it is true."
The storm comes almost 35 years to the day that the famed Blizzard of '78 hit the region. That storm, which claimed dozens of lives, left about 27 inches of snow in Boston and packed hurricane-force winds and flooding that caused extensive damage along the coast.
Associated Press reporters Denise Lavoie, Jay Lindsay and Bob Salsberg contributed to this report.