WASHINGTON - A blizzard-like storm rocked the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern U.S. states on Saturday, crippling travel across the region and causing hundreds of thousands of power outages.
Those who did venture out were treated to nearly desolate stores on what is usually one of the busiest shopping days of the year. There were virtually no lines to get a picture with a mall Santa on the last weekend before Christmas.
The National Guard used Humvees to rescue stranded motorists in Virginia and some 500 people sought warmth and refuge in emergency shelters. Virginia emergency officials reported three deaths that appear linked to the storm. One person was killed in a traffic accident caused by slick roads. Authorities believe another person died of exposure, and the weather may have contributed to another traffic death. In Ohio, two people were killed in accidents on snow-covered roads hit by the same storm system.
Nearly two feet (60 centimetres) of snow fell in some areas, and the U.S. capital was under a blizzard warning. Public transportation nearly ground to a halt, but it wasn't enough to keep senators from staying in session to debate health care reform. The slow-moving storm was headed to the northeast.
Snowplows cleared the runway at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Washington as President Barack Obama returned from climate talks in Copenhagen. The White House said Obama rode in a motorcade back to the White House, instead of taking his helicopter, because of the conditions.
Forecasts called for up to 20 inches (50 centimetres) of snow across the region, which was virtually a sea of white. The Smithsonian Institution closed its museums, and the National Mall, which normally would be swarming with tourists, instead was the scene of snowball fights and cross-country skiers.
In western Virginia, officials said several hundred motorists became stranded and had to be rescued by four-wheeled-drive vehicles.
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said traffic was moving, though slowly. There were reports of jackknifed tractor-trailers and some semis on their sides. Troopers had responded to more than 4,000 traffic crashes and disabled vehicles.
At the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey, parking spots were plentiful. Inside, there was no line for a picture with Santa.
Mayors in Washington and Philadelphia declared snow emergencies and forecasters said the conditions could worsen. Governors in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky declared states of emergency.
Most of the flights at Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport had been cancelled, creating a ripple effect of delays across the country. The runways at Reagan were closed until 6 a.m. Sunday. Dulles had one runway open, but were expecting few, if any, flights. BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport closed temporarily Saturday afternoon to allow crews to clear snow from the runways and travellers who tried to reach their destinations by train also faced long delays and threats of cancellations.
"It's going to be very challenging for people who weren't able to get out today to rebook on flights this week," said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
Washington's Union Station was full of travellers, some of them sprawled on the floor. Amtrak, the passenger train service, said delays between Washington and Boston were averaging from 30 to 60 minutes. However, at least two trains to Boston departed more than 4 hours late, according to the railroad's website.
Forecasters said the storm system was expected to generate winds up to 35 miles (56 kilometres) per hour, which could cause near-whiteout conditions. It could be the most snow in the nation's capital since a February 2003 storm dumped nearly 27 inches (69 centimetres) at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
At a Walmart in the Richmond, Virginia, area, Nnika White took advantage of the few shoppers, buying a drum set for her 2½ year old son. White, dressed in a toboggan, scarf and flannel-like jacket, said she works long hours at the law firm she owns and doesn't get much time to shop.
"It's nice because no one's here. For shopping, it's great, but the roads are very, very bad," she said.
Snow, ice and freezing rain also hit western North Carolina on Friday, knocking out power to almost 60,000 customers around the Asheville area.
The storm came from the Gulf and drenched South Florida with rain starting late Thursday, leaving flooded homes and stranded drivers.