Monster blizzard paralyses US

(Spencer Platt, AFP)
(Spencer Platt, AFP)

Washington - A blizzard with gale-force winds paralyzed the southern and eastern United States on Saturday, dumping snow as millions hunkered down at home, hoping their food supplies would last and the power won't go out. Seven states declared a state of emergency, nine people were reported killed in accidents and parts of Washington were coated with nearly 60cm of drifting snow.

Power outages were already hitting 80 000 customers in New Jersey on Saturday and more than 8 000 in Virginia. About 1 000 traffic crashes and another 800 disabled vehicles were reported in Virginia, even as authorities warned people to stay off the roads. New Jersey Transit temporarily shut down all of its services and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Authority halted all trains around Philadelphia.

By early Saturday, 46cm of snow had fallen in eastern Kentucky. Emergency crews were making their way to those in cars stranded by snow along Interstate 75 to hand out water, fuel and snacks.

The National Weather Service said the winter storm could rank near the top 10 to ever hit the region.

"It does have the potential to be an extremely dangerous storm that can affect more than 50 million people," said Louis Uccellini, director of the weather service, adding that it could easily cause more than $1 billion in damage.

A state of emergency was declared in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New York and parts of other states. Blizzard warnings or watches were in effect along the storm's path, from Arkansas through Tennessee and Kentucky to the mid-Atlantic states and as far north as New York.

By Saturday morning, Washington already had nearly 60cm of blowing snow on the ground even as lightning flashed and thundersnow rumbled. To the north, Baltimore and Philadelphia were forecast to get slightly less and New York City's expected total was 30cm or more.

Flight tracking service FlightAware said airlines canceled about 7 600 flights Friday and Saturday. By Sunday afternoon, airlines hope to be back to full schedule.

College basketball games and concerts were also postponed. New York City's public libraries and zoo shut down.

Washington's subway system shut down entirely Friday night and will remain closed through Sunday. About 1 000 track workers were deployed to keep New York City's subway system moving and 79 trains had "scraper shoes" to reduce the icing on the rails.

Cruise ship delayed

The federal government closed its offices at noon Friday. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama would hunker down at the White House. The US Capitol Police said sledding on Capitol Hill, which only recently became legal, would be welcome for the first time in decades.

In Washington, Baltimore, and Delaware, archdioceses reminded Catholics that dangerous travel conditions are a legitimate excuse for missing Sunday Mass.

Some people, however, were riding out the storm better than others. Passengers on a cruise ship heading back to snowy Baltimore from the Bahamas will get one more day at sea after the Grandeur of the Seas decided to land on Monday instead of Sunday.

"I was not totally surprised and, frankly, happy to be delayed," said passenger Meg Ryan of Hamilton, New Jersey. "First, it is an extra day of vacation. But more importantly, safety comes first and travel on Sunday would be difficult, if not impossible."

And the snowstorm was greeted happily at Virginia's ski resorts.

"We're thrilled," said Hank Thiess, general manager at Wintergreen ski resort in central Virginia, who is expected 102cm of snow. "We're set up to have just a terrific second half of the ski season."

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