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Washington - The United States capital shut down on Wednesday ahead of a fierce snowstorm that blanketed the Appalachians, cut power to about 123 000 homes and businesses and prompted a state of emergency in Virginia.
The National Weather Service posted storm warnings for much of the Ohio River Valley and the mid-Atlantic states and as far south as eastern Tennessee.
Although the federal government ordered its 375 000 Washington-area workers to stay home, only rain mixed with light snow had fallen on the capital's largely deserted streets by early afternoon.
But Ken Widelski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sterling, Virginia, said plenty of snow was on the way, with the forecast ranging from 10cm in the capital to 30cm in the western suburbs.
“Colder air is moving in, so the snow will pick up in intensity there in D.C. You'll start to get accumulations,” he said.
The storm has been dubbed “snowquestration” by Washington wags in a nod to the federal budget crunch.
Schools, some congressional hearings and many businesses and institutions in Washington shut down as the storm rolled east after pummelling the Midwest.
The State Department and White House called off regular press briefings because of the threatened snowfall, which the weather service said could be Washington's biggest in about two years.
The White House said the foul weather could postpone a dinner between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican senators called to help revive budget talks.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declared a state of emergency as wet, heavy snow and rain fell across the state. State police had fielded more than 367 calls about traffic accidents and 237 about stalled vehicles since midnight, he said in a statement.
Airlines cancelled 2 000 flights, with about one-half at Washington, Philadelphia and New York area airports.
The heavy, wet snow brought down power lines and tree limbs, and about 123 000 homes and businesses were without power across nine states. Dominion Resources reported 91 000 customers were without power in Virginia and North Carolina.
The heaviest snowfall, 37.6cm, was recorded at Sugar Grove, West Virginia. The system dumped 23cm on Chicago's O'Hare International Airport by midnight on Tuesday, in the city's biggest snowstorm in two years, the weather service said.
Coastal flood warnings were in effect for part of the Atlantic coast from Maryland north to New York's Long Island. Authorities in Brick Township, on New Jersey's shore, urged residents in flood-prone areas to evacuate.
Brick Mayor Steven Acropolis said many residents were still unnerved by the pummelling from Hurricane Sandy in October.
“A lot of people just don't want to stay in their home again and hear the wind blowing, and hear the rain coming and not know (if), 'Boy, am I going to get flooded out again?'“ he said.
Monique Bond, a spokeswoman with the Illinois State Patrol, said bad weather may have contributed to a crash that killed a woman and her child on highway Interstate 70 in Marshall, Illinois.
In Washington's Maryland suburbs, a group of children were surprised to hear that school was cancelled because there was not any snow.
After a snowball fight - “It's good packing,” said Jason Kaplan, 10 - they dragged sleds and inner tubes to sledding hills only to find slush.
“There was a lot of mud,” he said.
The heavy snow shut down at least 500 schools in central and southern Ohio, including the University of Cincinnati.
The ad hoc Washington Snowball Fight Association moved back its scheduled snowball fight from the afternoon to the evening, citing lack of accumulation. “Thanks for keeping the faith!” it said on its Facebook page. - Reuters