Washingtonians braced all week for it, emptying supermarket shelves in the days leading up to the storm they had been warned about.

On Saturday, the blizzard finally unloaded, bringing near-zero visibility to parts of the U.S. East Coast, unleashing whiplash winds and burying parked cars under what's forecast to be as much as 70 centimetres of snow in the D.C. metro area.

It would have been a notable white wallop anywhere. But in the U.S. capital, paralyzed just days ago by a light dusting, the brutal nor'easter was an occasion for both awe and dread in a city unaccustomed to whiteout conditions.

"Too much!" Oscar Aserio said early Saturday morning, brushing drifting snow from his eyes with a gloved hand as a small snow-clearing crew loaded more ice melt and a snowblower into a truck.

"No sleep. Twenty hours," he added.

It was only to intensify throughout the day. Ferocious winds were expected to peak in the late afternoon, and were thrashing the capital at speeds of up to 60 km/h by noon, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

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By 8 a.m. Saturday morning, Oscar Aserio says he has been clearing snow for 20 hours with no sleep. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Whistling gusts and sirens from emergency vehicles pealed down 14th Street as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser appealed to the public to keep out of the way of first responders and essential vehicles.

"Our message, and we need the public to listen, is to stay home and to stay off of the streets," she said.

Storm among worst to hit region

The U.S. National Weather Service said the winter storm could rank near the top 10 to ever hit the southern and eastern U.S.

More than 85 million people were in the path of the storm, which set record-high tide levels, caused coastal flooding and sent 6.7-metre waves crashing on the New Jersey shoreline.

Washington's metro and bus systems have been shuttered throughout the weekend. Some bus shelters were boarded up, and the city was under a state of emergency. Officials warned the storm is life-threatening as snow fell at a rate of 5 cm per hour.

A grim tally also ticked upwards the day as at least 17 people were reported killed in storm-related crashes in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina. One Maryland resident died while shovelling the snow, the Associated Press reported.

States of emergency were called in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and New York.

In Washington's suburbs, some residents living in older buildings reportedly checked into hotels in anticipation of power outages. As many as 250,000 Americans were estimated to have had their electricity knocked out, with customers affected in New Jersey, Philadelphia and Washington.

In the New York metro area, where taxi tires spun in the snow and had to be dug out, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed a travel ban for the city and Long Island starting at 2:30 p.m. ET.

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People make their way down R Street in Washington's Shaw neighbourhood during Saturday's snowstorm. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Storm accumulation was more than expected and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio urged people to stay indoors, warning this blizzard could be among the five biggest ever to pummel the most populous city in the country.

"It is imperative people get off the roads," De Blasio said. "If people linger, they will get stuck."

Residents make best of whiteout

D.C. deployed 100 national guardsmen with Humvee vehicles to transport essential personnel such as doctors and nurses to hospitals.

"I saw some army-mobiles going around," said Rob Spratley, venturing out with sled at U Street as his college friends chucked snowballs at him. "This is pretty spontaneous and awesome. I've sensed more excitement than dismay, but I'd understand why people are worried because of what happened a few days ago."

A whisper of snow on Wednesday seemed to play out as a foreboding lead-in for the main event on Saturday. The sprinkling earlier in the week brought D.C. to a standstill. Cars slid through stop signs, jaywalkers slipped in the streets and highways turned into parking lots.

On Friday, the first flakes of a mid-Atlantic snowstorm landed, causing schools to close and the metro to close for the weekend. By Saturday morning, the snowfall had blanketed D.C. in white, before the storm morphed into a full-on blizzard with thundersnow.

Despite the warnings of danger, downtown D.C. residents were delighted to wake up Saturday to see major city streets transformed for a few hours into an alpine resort. Some people walked out wearing ski goggles, snapped selfies and pushed one another into snowbanks.

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Hayley Hoffman and David Dworkin strapped on their cross-country skis for a tour through 14th Street in Washington, D.C. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Hayley Hoffman and David Dworkin, dressed in full cross-country skiing regalia with ski poles, said they were looking forward to taking a circuit around the block.

"I didn't expect we'd be skiing out on 14th Street, it's one of the main arteries of Washington, D.C.," Dworkin said. "But it works for me."

Washington city officials are not happy with so many people out marvelling at the weather. But Jessica Fields, tugging her daughter Ariel along in a makeshift sled, was eager to introduce her 18-month-old to winter weather before the blizzard was to really whip up in the afternoon.

"This is her first big snow. I'm going to try to walk around the block three or four times today," she said earlier in the morning. "Then it's time to hunker down."

The worst of the blizzard is expected to taper off around 11 p.m. Local groups have already organized snowball fights and sledding activities at Dupont Circle and at Capitol Hill for Sunday, once the weather has calmed.