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Holiday blizzard barrels into NY

New York, Feb. 17 (Reuters): A holiday blizzard barrelled into New York and New England today after it closed most major airports in the mid-Atlantic region, stranded thousands of travelers and brought commerce to a halt.

The slow-moving storm — a classic winter Nor’easter — dumped about 60 cm of snow on Washington, virtually paralysing the nation’s capital and outlying areas.

More than 43 cm of snow had fallen at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport by 1600 GMT today, and up to 60 cm were expected in what one forecaster called the worst winter storm since 1996.

“It’s very pretty, it’s very inconvenient, and it’s very expensive,” said New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, adding it would take nearly two days to clear all of the city’s roads once the snow stops falling.

Bloomberg said a state of emergency had been declared in the city, which will give authorities access to federal funds. A snow emergency was also declared, giving city officials the right to hire private contractors to help with the clean-up.

Manhattan was as hushed as a church as the snow muffled the sounds of the few cars on the roads. Many New Yorkers simply stayed inside on Presidents’ Day — bad news for retailers who typically plan big sales on the national holiday.

In Philadelphia, one of the cities hardest hit, at least three of the largest area shopping malls gave up and closed. Auto dealers, such as Don Rosen Imports, shut their doors even as their radio spots continued to promise big Presidents’ Day sales.

Baltimore received about 60 cm of snow by midnight. Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley saw as much as 90 cm, while Boston was likely to get up to 50 cm, forecasters said.

Like shopping malls and car dealerships, airports from Washington to New York shut down — forcing airlines to nix flights in waves.

As of 1700 GMT, United Airlines said it had canceled 358 of the more than 1,700 flights it had originally planned to to operate today, although it said it was trying to accommodate flights coming in from overseas.

US Airways announced it had cancelled service for the remainder of the day at New York’s LaGuardia airport, Washington’s Ronald Reagan National and Dulles International airports, Baltimore Washington International and Philadelphia International airports.

American Airlines said it had cancelled a majority of its flights today into northeastern airports, without providing a specific number.

Rail operator Amtrak said it had cancelled service between the nation’s capital and Florida, but a spokesman said nine of 10 trains were still running along the busy Northeast corridor that links Washington with Boston.

Pennsylvania was one of at least seven states that declared a state of emergency, giving state police the power to close roads and allowing the state to help cities with their snow removal budgets. Other states included Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey, which ordered drivers off the roads.

The Delaware National Guard was called out to help clear roads and rescue drivers trapped in their cars.

Tony Stackow of New York managed to avoid being stranded on the road. He was driving to a family event in Maryland when he was forced to find shelter in Wilmington, Delaware.

“I’ve never seen snow like this, and I go back a ways — to the Forties,” he told WPVI-TV news.

The blizzard forced President George W. Bush to return to the White House early from Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. Instead of the usual 30-minute helicopter flight from Camp David, Bush made the two-and-a-half-hour trip back yesterday in a vehicle convoy preceded by snow plows.

Washington mayor Anthony Williams cut short a vacation in Puerto Rico to oversee the city’s storm response. As of early today, freezing rain was reported in North Carolina.

A winter storm warning remained in effect for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island till tomorrow morning.

The strong northeast winds and much higher tides due to the full moon were expected to push the tide about 60 cm above normal this night till tomorrow morning and waves as high as 6 metres were to hit the Massachusetts shoreline tonight and tomorrow, the weather service said.

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