A massive winter storm roared into the East Coast on Thursday, threatening to dump as much as 45cm of snow from the Carolinas to Maine and unleashing hurricane-force winds and flooding that closed schools and offices, cancelled thousands of flights and halted ground transport systems.

Forecasters dubbed the storm a “bomb cyclone” for the plummeting temperatures it heralds, expected to break records in more than two dozen cities and bring wind chills as low as -40 degrees Celsius this weekend.

Blizzard warnings and states of emergency were in wide effect, and wind gusts hit more than 113km/h in some places. Eastern Massachusetts and most of Rhode Island braced for as much as 8cm of snow per hour.

Cancelled flights are displayed on a departure board at Logan International Airport (BOS) in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Bloomberg

Four people were killed in North and South Carolina after their vehicles ran off snow-covered roads, authorities said. Another fatality was reported near Philadelphia when a car could not stop at the bottom of a steep, snow-covered hill and slammed into a commuter train. A passenger in the vehicle was killed. No one on the train was hurt.

In New Jersey, Orlando Igmat’s car got stuck in a snowbank along the Garden State Parkway in Tinton Falls as he drove to work at Verizon. He waited a half-hour for a tow truck to pull him out.

“I didn’t expect it (the storm) was going to be a heavy one. That’s why I went to work today. I’m going to stay in a hotel tonight,” he said.

More than 100,000 homes and businesses lost power at some point, depriving many people of heat. Connecticut opened more than 100 warming centres in 34 towns. More than half of the outages – mostly in the South – were restored by Thursday afternoon.

The high winds caused coastal flooding from Massachusetts to Maine, overwhelming fishing piers, streets and restaurants. The rising waters also stranded people in homes and cars.

The Massachusetts National Guard said it helped rescue a woman and her two children from a car in Marshfield. Flooding in Newburyport forced evacuations on Plum Island, and the only road from the island to the mainland was closed, police said.

Joe Weatherly, a 40-year-old artist from Los Angeles, was in Boston’s Seaport district, holding his Boston terrier while searching for a seafood restaurant. Part of the district was flooded.

“For someone in California, this is really, really scary. Mind blowing,” he said. “We don’t live in a state where things shut down with the weather. I’ve just never seen this much snow in my life.”

The high tide in Portland, Maine, reached 4.2 metres, nearly matching the 4.3 metres reported during the Blizzard of 1978.

At least nine people killed by record-breaking freeze that has gripped US and Canada

Linda Heuman and Amy Remensnyder were supposed to fly to Berlin on Thursday, but the flight was cancelled. That left them stuck in their home in Providence, Rhode Island, with no food. So they trekked through the snow to a grocery store nearly a mile away.

Their plans for the rest of the day were simple: Make soup, do some desk work and maybe watch a movie with popcorn, Remensnyder said.

Schools, businesses and ferry services in parts of the Canadian coast were also shut down. Nova Scotia Power said it had more than 1,000 people at the ready in its biggest-ever pre-storm mobilisation of personnel and resources.

A man shovels snow on Main Street in Bellport, New York state as a blizzard hits the northeastern part of the United States on Thursday. Photo: Getty Images/Agence France-Presse

Wind gusts strong enough to topple trees and power lines were predicted in the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes parts of Delaware, Virginia and Maryland; coastal New Jersey; eastern Long Island, New York; and coastal eastern New England.

The flight-tracking site FlightAware reported nearly 5,000 cancelled flights across the United States. Those included more than two-thirds of flights in and out of New York City and Boston airports.

Rail service was affected too. Amtrak planned to operate a modified schedule between New York and Boston. Northeast Regional Service between Washington, D.C., and Newport News/Norfolk, Virginia, was cancelled.

Some people took the weather in stride.

Perry Curtis shovels snow in front of the US Capitol on Thursday in Washington. Photo: Getty Images/Agence France-Presse

Mark Schoenenberger, a 45-year-old Nasa engineer who lives in Norfolk, Virginia, put on his cross country skis so he could make a half-hour trip to the bagel shop for some breakfast for his family.

“It’s like ‘Yay, I get to go out,” he said.

The only concern he seemed to have was telecommuting while his kids were home from school. But “it’s just noise,” he said.

Waiting just behind the storm was a wave of bracing cold.

Wind bends palm tree branches in Rehoboth, Delaware, on Thursday. A massive winter storm swept in from the Carolinas to Maine. Photo: The Wilmington News-Journal via AP

National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Peterson said record low temperatures were predicted for 28 major cities across New England, eastern New York and the mid-Atlantic states by dawn Sunday.

Boston expected a low around -24 Celsius overnight Saturday into Sunday. Portland, Maine, and Burlington, Vermont, could see -27 and -28 Celsius, respectively, the weather service said.

State and local officials urged people to stay home so crews could clear away the snow. There were concerns in Boston and elsewhere that if roads were not properly cleared, the snow could freeze into cement-like ice after the cold blast arrives.

Ice flows through the New Haven Harbour on Thursday in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Getty Images/Agence France-Presse

In other areas, plummeting temperatures caused water mains to burst. Jackson, Mississippi, was under a precautionary boil-water notice after pipes failed. Portable toilets were placed outside the state Capitol because some of the toilets would not flush.

The massive storm began two days ago in the Gulf of Mexico and first struck the Florida Panhandle. Some meteorologists described it as a “bomb cyclone,” a term that comes from the process of bombogensis, when the barometric pressure drops steeply in a short period.

It was so cold in South Florida that iguanas fell from their perches in trees in suburban Miami. The reptiles became immobile when temperatures dipped below 5 degrees Celsius.

Charlotte Simpson, 6, of Washington, laughs in the snow as she sledges on a small hill by the Capitol Visitors Centre, on Thursday, as a massive winter virtually shuts down the US east coast. Photo: AP