In Taunton, Mass., National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Dunham said southern New England has seen less than half its normal snowfall this season, but "we're going to catch up in a heck of a hurry," with 1 1/2 to 2 feet forecast.
"Everybody's going to get plastered with snow," he said.
The snow is expected to start Friday morning, with the heaviest amounts falling at night and into Saturday. Wind gusts could top 60 mph. Widespread power failures were feared, along with flooding in coastal areas still recovering from Superstorm Sandy in October.
New York City was expecting around 5 to 10 inches of snow. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said plows and 250,000 tons of salt were being put on standby.
"We hope forecasts are exaggerating the amount of snow, but you never can tell," he said.
A blizzard watch was posted for parts of New York's Long Island and portions of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, including Hartford, Conn., Providence and Boston.
In New England, it could prove to be among the top 10 snowstorms in history, and perhaps even break Boston's record of 27.6 inches, set in 2003, forecasters said. The storm is arriving just after the 35th anniversary of the blizzard of 1978, which paralyzed New England with more than 2 feet of snow and hurricane-force winds from Feb. 5-7.
The last major snowfall in southern New England was well over a year ago — the Halloween storm of 2011.
Diane Lopes was among the shoppers who packed a supermarket Thursday in the coastal fishing city of Gloucester, Mass. She said she went to different grocery earlier in the day and it was too crowded to venture inside. Lopes said she has strep throat and normally wouldn't leave the house but had to stock up on basic foods — "and lots of wine."
She chuckled at the excitement the storm was creating in a place where snow is routine.
"Why are us New Englanders so crazy, right?" she said.
In New Hampshire, Dartmouth College student Evan Diamond and other members of the ski team were getting ready for races at the Ivy League school's winter carnival.
"We're pretty excited about it because this has been an unusual winter for us," he said. "We've been going back and forth between having really solid cold snaps and then the rain washing everything away."
But he said the snow might be too much of a good thing this weekend: "For skiing, we like to have a nice hard surface, so it will be kind of tough to get the hill ready."
Terrance Rodriguez, a doorman at a luxury apartment complex in Boston, took the forecast in stride.
"It's just another day in Boston. It's to be expected. We're in a town where it's going to snow," he said. "It's like doomsday prep. It doesn't need to be. People just take it to the extreme."